Facebook still allows housing ads to discriminate by race

ProPublica revealed earlier this year that Facebook allowed housing advertisers to target ads at white people and provided other racist segmentation options. Facebook promised to build a system that would spot and eliminate these ads, but a new investigation demonstrates that it failed to do so.

Last week, ProPublica bought dozens of rental housing ads on Facebook, but asked that they not be shown to certain categories of users, such as African Americans, mothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Jews, expats from Argentina and Spanish speakers.

All of these groups are protected under the federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal to publish any advertisement “with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.” Violators can face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

Every single ad was approved within minutes.

It seems Facebook only ever does so much as is needed to get rid of bad press. As a promise of change always ends the news cycle, implementation hardly matters.

UPDATE Facebook executive Ami Vora posted a statement:

“This was a failure in our enforcement and we’re disappointed that we fell short of our commitments. Earlier this year, we added additional safeguards to protect against the abuse of our multicultural affinity tools to facilitate discrimination in housing, credit and employment. The rental housing ads purchased by ProPublica should have but did not trigger the extra review and certifications we put in place due to a technical failure. Our safeguards, including additional human reviewers and machine learning systems have successfully flagged millions of ads and their effectiveness has improved over time. Tens of thousands of advertisers have confirmed compliance with our tighter restrictions, including that they follow all applicable laws. We don’t want Facebook to be used for discrimination and will continue to strengthen our policies, hire more ad reviewers, and refine machine learning tools to help detect violations. Our systems continue to improve but we can do better. While we currently require compliance notifications of advertisers that seek to place ads for housing, employment, and credit opportunities, we will extend this requirement to ALL advertisers who choose to exclude some users from seeing their ads on Facebook to also confirm their compliance with our anti-discrimination policies – and the law.” -Ami Vora, VP Product Management, Facebook

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