Facebook changes policy that lets advertisers discriminate based on race

Sellers can choose to show their advertisements to only Hispanic, African Americans, Asian Americans, and other ethnicities.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File
CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File

If you’re looking to advertise your new business or sell your house and don’t want black people as your customers, Facebook has a solution for you.

According to a ProPublica report released Friday, the world’s favorite social network allows advertisers to exclude potential customers by race or ethnicity, as well as gender and other demographic qualities.

ProPublica reporters purchased a Facebook ad and found that the site breaks consumers into “ethnic affinity” groups, alongside nearly 50,000 other categories, to help advertisers tailor their prospective pool.

Advertisers use specific demographics and characteristics to increase the usefulness of their ads, but have been criticized for making broad or stereotypical assumptions about what a particular group, such as women, would want. In Facebook’s case, the main issue is that advertisers could be preventing people who may want or be interested in a house, business, or product because a user’s race or ethnic association.


Facebook’s advertising policy prohibits from using the ad “targeting options to discriminate against, harass, provoke, or disparage users or to engage in predatory advertising practices.” Advertisers who do use the targeting options must make sure they comply with data privacy terms.

But the option to target consumers based on race or ethnic background is problematic and likely could be a violation of the Fair Housing and Civil Rights Acts. Both laws prohibit advertisements tailored or limited by race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Additionally, the Fair Housing Act bans discrimination based on familial status or mental or physical ability.

Other media organizations have found ways to prevent potential discriminatory practices. For example, ProPublica found that the New York Times has an automated system that dismisses ads that framed as for “whites only” or “no kids.”

Facebook isn’t the first tech company to have practices that may run afoul of federal anti-discrimination laws. Home-sharing site Airbnb has struggled with its own race problem, where hosts were discriminating against potential renters based on their profile photos. The company recently implemented a slew of policy changes to stem the problem, including downplaying profile photos and making features such as guest reviews more prominent.

Facebook told ProPublica that it takes discrimination seriously and initiates “prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.”


UPDATE: Facebook has changed its advertising practices and will no longer allow advertisers to exclude users based on race or ethnicities, USA Today reported.

“We are going to turn off, actually prohibit, the use of ethnic affinity marketing for ads that we identify as offering housing, employment and credit,” Facebook’s vice president of U.S. public policy Erin Egan told USA Today.

The change followed meetings between Facebook staff and Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and several individual Congress members.