Facebook Is Revamping Its Targeting for Housing, Employment and Credit Ads

The changes are part of settlements of lawsuits and EEOC complaints

Facebook aims to implement its ad-targeting changes by the end of the year. - Credit by Getty Images
Headshot of David Cohen

Facebook is implementing several changes to its targeting policies for ads dealing with housing, employment and credit as part of the company’s settlements of several class-action lawsuits and complaints.

In one of the complaints, the American Civil Liberties Union teamed with Communications Workers of America and workers’ rights law firm Outten & Golden last September to file charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Facebook and 10 companies that advertised jobs via its platform, claiming unlawful discrimination and saying the advertisers used the social network’s targeting capabilities to deliver their ads solely to male users.

Outten & Golden attorney Peter Romer-Friedman said in response to Tuesday’s settlement, “We’re happy with the groundbreaking changes we secured in this first-of-its-kind settlement. We were honored to represent workers. In any settlement, you don’t get everything you want—that’s the way the world works. But the lion’s share of issues we raised in litigation and made public, and the things we wanted to change, are being done here.”

Chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said in a Facebook post discussing the settlements, “Our policies already prohibit advertisers from using our tools to discriminate. We’ve removed thousands of categories from targeting related to protected classes such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion. But we can do better.”

And the social network will begin the process of doing better with three key changes: Age, gender and ZIP code targeting is no longer allowed on ads for housing, employment and credit; interest segments for ads in those categories have been slashed from thousands to hundreds; and a new transparency tool is being built to provide information on all current housing ads being run in the U.S.

Facebook is creating a separate portal for housing, employment and credit ads on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. All ads in those categories must be created via the portal, and if the social network detects ads that have been created elsewhere, they will be blocked and the advertisers will be rerouted to the portal.

Gender, age and multicultural affinity targeting options will not be available within the portal, nor will targeting by ZIP code: Ads must have a minimum geographic radius of 15 miles from specific addresses or the centers of cities.

The portal also excludes targeting options related to protected characteristics or classes, such as race, color, national origin, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, family status, disability and sexual orientation.

When lookalike audiences are used for housing, employment and credit ads, categories such as gender, age, religious views, ZIP code and membership in Facebook groups cannot be used in creating those audiences.

Romer-Friedman said, “We don’t think lookalike audiences should ever be used in these types of ads, but the settlement greatly reduces the chance of lookalike ads being used to discriminate against people in protected classes.”

The number of interest segments available for housing, employment and credit ads has been downsized from several thousand to a few hundred.

Interests that are used the most by advertisers in those categories will remain, such as real estate, credit card, apartment, house, renting, employment agency and job interview. But those related to protected classes were removed.

Finally, the new transparency tool Facebook is developing will enable people to search and view all current housing ads in the U.S., regardless of whether those ads would potentially be shown to them.

ACLU senior staff attorney Galen Sherwin said in a statement reacting to the settlements, “As the internet—and platforms like Facebook—plays an increasing role in connecting us all to information related to economic opportunities, it’s crucial that micro-targeting not be used to exclude groups that already face discrimination. We are pleased Facebook has agreed to take meaningful steps to ensure that discriminatory advertising practices are not given new life in the digital era, and we expect other tech companies to follow Facebook’s lead.”

While Romer-Friedman credited Facebook with taking concerns on this topic seriously and making the necessary changes, he stressed that companies that used the social network’s platform improperly are not off the hook.

He said Outten & Golden would continue to pressure advertisers that used Facebook targeting to prevent older people and women from seeing ads for jobs—including Amazon and T-Mobile—adding that companies that do not reach settlements will be taken to court and warning, “Every single employer that has done this should not sleep well. The internet is not a civil-rights-free zone.”

Facebook said its goal is to implement all of the changes it revealed Tuesday by the end of the year, adding that they currently apply to advertisers targeting people in the U.S., regardless of where they are based, and expanding them globally will be examined in the future.

The changes were part of Facebook’s settlements of three class-action lawsuits and two EEOC charges that filed between November 2016 and September 2018 by parties including the National Fair Housing Alliance, CWA, regional fair housing associations and individual consumers and job seekers.

Facebook is also paying out a total of just under $5 million to the various parties involved in the settlements.

The social network agreed to require advertisers to certify that they are complying with its policies; provide them with educational materials and features; meet regularly with the plaintiffs and their counsel to update them on its implementation of the updates; allow the plaintiffs to run tests over its ad platform in order to ensure that its updates are effective in preventing abuse; work with the NFHA to develop a training program for employees; and work with academics, researchers, experts and civil rights and liberties advocates to study the potential of unintended biases in its algorithms.

Romer-Friedman said those meetings will occur every six months, and the testing Facebook is allowing will “make sure ads can’t slip through the cracks.”

Sandberg wrote in her post, “Housing, employment and credit ads are crucial to helping people buy new homes, start great careers and gain access to credit. They should never be used to exclude or harm people. Getting this right is deeply important to me and all of us at Facebook because inclusivity is a core value for our company.”

david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.