It's illegal to discriminate based on "protected classes," including "men and women on the basis of sex; any group which shares a common race, religion, color, or national origin; people over 40; and people with physical or mental handicaps" but from the earliest days of its self-serve ad platform, Facebook gave advertisers the ability to exclude people from ads for jobs, financial products, housing and other necessities based on these categories.
The company acted shocked in 2016, when Propublica outed them for the practice. Then, Facebook's line was that they had never imagined their advertisers might use the illegal discrimination tools the company provided to do anything illegal. They vowed action.
Here's what they did: they renamed the "Ethnic Affinities" selector (which targeted based on race) to "Multicultural Affinities" (which, they argued, targeted based on behavior, which would be legal) (ish). A year later, Propublica revealed that somehow this had failed to eliminate illegal discrimination on the platform.
Armed with Propublica's work, Washington State's Attorney General somehow saw through this excellent and cunning ruse and kicked the shit out of Facebook, ordering the company to end advertisers' ability to exclude based on protected classes on threat of serious legal repercussions.
That's why Facebook will soon stop allowing discrimination based on a set of selectors that go beyond the protected classes, including "veteran and military status, disability status, national origin, and sexual orientation," for ads for "employment, housing, credit, and insurance."
But don't worry, the platform still has lots of loopholes advertisers will be able to exploit to practice illegal discrimination.
"According to the assurance of discontinuance, Facebook will fix its advertising platform to remove the unlawful targeting options within 90 days," reads the press release. "The social network service also will pay the Washington State Attorney General's Office $90,000 in costs and fees." Facebook is still facing a lawsuit from civil rights groups alleging the social network enabled housing discrimination.
While Facebook has pledged to make these changes, there are still other aspects of its ad platform that critics take issue with. Peter Romer-Friedman, a lawyer with Outten & Golden LLP and the lead attorney on two age and racial discrimination lawsuits filed against Facebook in the Northern District of California, says the agreement today does nothing to address age discrimination or gender discrimination on Facebook.
Romer-Friedman noted how it's still easy to discriminate against older users when targeting employment ads. He also noted how advertisers on Facebook can still engage in racial discrimination by doing what's known as redlining, which, in the context of Facebook, involves excluding certain races and ethnic groups in ads by targeting those ads to distinct ZIP codes.
Facebook signs agreement saying it won't let housing advertisers exclude users by race [Nick Statt/The Verge]