Facebook has been under steady fire over data breaches, misuse of personal data, improper reporting of video ad metrics, fake news and the use of its platform to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
So, what if the social network had a relatively easy way to put out one of its smaller fires: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charges filed against it and 10 advertisers last month by the American Civil Liberties Union, Communications Workers of America and workers’ rights law firm Outten & Golden over the use of its targeting capabilities to deliver employment ads solely to male users?
Maybe it does.
Over the past few months, Facebook has instituted several measures covering political ads on its platform, including requiring confirmation of the identity of the buyer and their location before political ads can be approved and adding labels to election-related and issue ads so that people can see who paid for them.
Should the social network take similar steps with ads for employment, housing and credit?
In separate interviews, Outten & Golden attorney Peter Romer-Friedman and Farrell Fritz partner and employment law expert Domenique Moran offered up nearly identical solutions, saying that companies seeking to place ads on Facebook for employment, housing and credit should have to indicate that they are doing so before being presented with targeting options, and those options should not include the ability to exclude protected classes or discriminate by age or gender.
Romer-Friedman also pointed out that advertisers in these categories should not be permitted to exclude by ZIP code, calling it “digital redlining” and added, “Location is a proxy for race in America, sadly.”
For comparison’s sake, LinkedIn only allows targeting by gender for specific use cases, such as women-themed events and conferences, and a spokesman for the professional network said every ad goes through a review process—automated or manual, depending on the ad type and the advertiser’s history on the network—with advertisers being required to certify that they will not discriminate by gender or age.
Facebook has not ignored calls for action.
In February 2017, the social network announced in a Newsroom post that if an advertiser attempted to run a housing, employment or credit opportunity ad that either included or excluded its multicultural advertising segments, the ad would not be approved, and advertisers seeking to run those types of ads would be required to certify that they were compliant with that policy and with applicable anti-discrimination laws.
A Facebook spokesperson said those requirements are being extended to all advertisers for all categories, which is already in effect in the U.S. and going worldwide in 2019. Advertisers that do not certify their compliance will not be permitted to run ads on the platform.
Facebook also reviewed its targeting tools, which resulted in the elimination of more than 5,000 targeting options in August.
And the company receives “constant feedback” from experts in the fields of privacy, data ethics and civil rights, as well as charitable and advocacy organizations.
Facebook corporate communications manager Joe Osborne said, “There is no place for discrimination on Facebook—it’s strictly prohibited in our policies. We take these matters seriously and will continue working directly with parties to address their concerns.”
In fairness, there are drawbacks to the potential solution.
Taking targeting options away from advertisers would both drive up the price of campaigns and limit their effectiveness, as brands would be paying to reach people they are not trying to reach, and people would be served ads that are not relevant to them.
A Facebook spokesperson also pointed out that in the case of employment ads, companies could promote the same job by featuring a woman when targeting women and a man when targeting men, making this type of targeting a tool for diverse recruiting rather than an impediment to it.
Romer-Friedman said he doesn’t believe Facebook is to blame for the actions of the advertisers included in the EEOC charges, adding that the social network has received the most attention because it has the largest user base, which skews older, and pointing out that Facebook is more transparent about who is seeing ads and why than most social platforms are.
Facebook is not alone, either. Reuters reported earlier this month that Amazon’s artificial intelligence-powered job recruiting engine favored men over women, and the project has since been scrapped.
So, what’s next? Moran said, “In some respects, this is more about whether Facebook wants to do something and whether Facebook thinks this is the right thing to do to limit this.”
Romer-Friedman added, “On the macro level, Facebook should be taking more responsibility for what advertisers are doing on its platform in the economic opportunity space. I think the company has started to move in that direction by making general statements about how there is no place for discrimination on its platform. That’s not true right now. Every day, companies are running opportunity ads that exclude protected classes.”