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Facebook To Overhaul Ad Targeting Tools To End Bias Suits

Mar 19, 2019 / News Item / Law360 — Vin Gurrieri

Facebook on Tuesday settled a series of lawsuits alleging it enabled advertisers to illegally exclude certain users from seeing their job, housing and credit ads, with the tech giant agreeing to overhaul its platform to limit those ads from being targeted toward cherry-picked users in a discriminatory way. 

The global settlement resolves four cases against Facebook that had been pending in federal court as well as a case pending before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Each suit included a variation of the allegation that Facebook's employment, housing and credit advertisements discriminated against people based on a variety of protected categories, such as race, age and gender.

As part of the agreement, Facebook agreed to create a separate portal for ads on all its platforms related to employment, housing or credit where advertisers' options for targeting those ads at specific people, groups or while excluding others will be limited, according to a statement the company issued Tuesday.

Advertisers who run such ads will not be able to target them by age, gender or ZIP code, the company said.

Moreover, Facebook's "look-alike audience" tool, which allows advertisers to seek out Facebook users that are like their current customers or people on their marketing lists, will no longer be able to take categories such as gender or religion into account when ads are being customized, according to a summary of the agreement made public Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights and labor groups.

ACLU attorney Galen Sherwin said in a press conference Tuesday that the settlement is the product both of lengthy negotiations between plaintiffs in the lawsuits and Facebook as well as "years of mounting pressure" from civil rights groups. She noted that Facebook's actions will cut advertisers' targeting options for employment, housing and credit adds from tens of thousands to just several hundred.

"Under the settlement announced today, the tech giant has agreed to make sweeping changes to its paid advertising platform to prevent advertisers from excluding users on a discriminatory basis when they place ads on Facebook's platform for employment housing and credit," Sherwin said. "Today's settlement marks an important step in ensuring that our civil rights don't disappear when we go online."

The federal court cases that were resolved as part of Tuesday's agreement are Mobley et al. v. Facebook; National Fair Housing Alliance et al. v. Facebook; Spees et al. v. Facebook; and Riddick v. Facebook. Another case that was pending before the EEOC — Communications Workers of America v. Facebook — was also resolved.

The Mobley case was the first of that group, having been filed in California federal court in late 2016. The National Fair Housing Alliance's suit, which was filed in New York federal court, accused Facebook of flouting the Fair Housing Act by enabling advertisers to exclude certain people in protected groups from seeing house and rental listings.

"We and our clients believe that labor rights and civil rights matter wherever opportunities for workers are at stake and the internet does not provide a blank check to tech companies or employers to flout our civil rights laws," Peter Romer-Friedman of Outten & Golden LLP, which represented plaintiffs in several of the resolved cases, said during Tuesday's press conference.

He also noted that a separate class action that was filed by CWA and workers against hundreds of employers, including Amazon and T-Mobile, that allegedly sent Facebook discriminatory job ads excluding older workers is still pending and not affected by Tuesday's settlement.

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