Facebook will no longer let businesses buy targeted ads on the platform that potentially discriminate against users who are women, people of color, or elderly.
The company announced Tuesday that it was settling five lawsuits filed last year by civil rights groups that claimed the platform’s business model allowed companies to illegally advertise job opportunities, home sales, and credit offers that were only visible to men, young people, and users in white neighborhoods. Even Facebook’s own job ads posted on the network screened out older users.
“Housing, employment and credit ads are crucial to helping people buy new homes, start great careers, and gain access to credit,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a blog post. “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.”
As part of the settlement, Sandberg said the platform will no longer allow advertisers to target users by age, gender, or zip code if the ads are related to housing, employment, or credit offers. Ads related to other products and services will not be held to this standard.
The announcement is a major change to Facebook’s business model, which has allowed advertisers to target audiences to an extent that no other media company has been able to match. And it’s a sign that Facebook is softening its usual aggressive response toward public criticism.
Facebook was flooded with civil rights lawsuits
The social media network first came under scrutiny for civil rights abuses in 2016, when a ProPublica investigation found that companies could buy ads that screened out users based on their race, which is potentially illegal in the context of housing and employment advertising.
Facebook announced in February 2017 that it had developed a new system to flag and reject certain ads that screened users based on “ethnic affinity,” but the network continued to let advertisers filter out characteristics linked to other protected groups: women, people with disabilities, and religious minorities.
That triggered lawsuits from groups such as the National Fair Housing Alliance, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Communication Workers of America, a labor union representing 700,000 media workers across the country.
In September, a group of women who use Facebook filed a gender discrimination complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accusing the social media giant and nine other companies of posting biased job ads on the platform.
The businesses reportedly bought ads on Facebook to publicize job openings, but targeted them so that no women who use the platform could see them. The jobs included positions for truck drivers and window installers, according to the New York Times.
The women claimed that hiding employment ads from an entire gender of job seekers was a violation of the Civil Rights Act, which makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against workers and job candidates based on gender, race, and other protected traits. The EEOC complaint was filed with support from lawyers at the ACLU and the Communications Workers of America.
In the complaint, lawyers showed how the company’s ad-building tool let businesses exclude women from seeing job posts. A Facebook disclosure for a job ad posted earlier this year by a furniture store in Texas said the business was trying to reach men between 18 and 50 years old near the city of Fort Worth, according to the Times.
Lawyers collected similar job ads posted on Facebook between October 2017 and August 2018, and they filed the complaint on behalf of all women Facebook users who were looking for jobs at the time.
Older workers sued Facebook too
Older workers have also accused Facebook, Ikea, and hundreds of other companies of discriminating against job seekers in their 50s and 60s through targeted job ads posted on Facebook.
The Communications Workers of America added the companies to a class-action lawsuit in May, which was filed in California federal court in 2017. In its original complaint, the labor union accused Amazon, T-Mobile, and Cox Media Group of doing the same thing.
Facebook had previously argued that the company is not legally responsible when other companies buy ads that violate the law. But in the filing, the CWA added Facebook to its complaint as one of the companies accused of violating civil rights laws by targeting its own job ads to younger users.
Here is one ad Facebook posted, submitted by the plaintiffs, inviting users to a career fair with Facebook recruiters. The ads were visible only to users between the ages of 21 and 55:
Facebook denied that these kinds of ads were a form of age discrimination. Rob Goldman, Facebook’s VP of ads, compared it to posting job ads in magazines geared toward young audiences, which the courts have said isn’t inherently a form of age discrimination as long as the company is also posting job ads in media outlets with older audiences or making other recruitment efforts.
“What matters is that marketing is broadly based and inclusive, not simply focused on a particular age group. In addition, certain employers want to attract retirees or recruit for jobs with specific age restrictions like the military or airline pilots,” Goldman wrote in 2017 in response to the original lawsuit and after ProPublica and the New York Times published a joint investigation that year, describing potential age and gender discrimination in the job ads (the first ProPublica investigation focused on race and ethnicity only).
Plaintiffs in the age discrimination lawsuit wanted the court to order the companies involved, including Facebook itself, to stop posting job ads that filter out older workers. They argued that it’s a violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which makes it illegal to discriminate against workers over the age of 40 in employment advertising, recruiting, hiring, and other employment opportunities.
Here are a few other ads the plaintiffs submitted as evidence:
The settlement is forcing Facebook to change its ways
As part of the settlement deal announced Tuesday, which includes all of these civil rights lawsuits, the company agreed to revamp its advertising tool — but without accepting liability for potentially violating anti-discrimination laws.
Aside from making changes that would make it impossible for advertisers to target protected classes in certain contexts, the company said it will also create a tool for users to search all housing ads, not just those that were tailored to them.
The settlement marks a victory for civil rights groups, which have accused Silicon Valley of perpetuating discrimination and inequality. It’s also a striking shift in the company’s usual strategy of deflecting public criticism or blame.