Facebook draws criticism for ‘ethnic affinity’ ad targeting

ProPublica pointed to some potentially problematic Facebook ad capabilities today — specifically, the ability to include or exclude users from a given ad campaign based on their “ethnic affinity.”

These capabilities have existed for a while (Facebook told ProPublica’s Julia Angwin and Terry Parris Jr. it began offering them within the past two years as part of its “multicultural advertising” efforts), and to the advertisers who’ve used them, they might seem like a natural extension of broader practices like targeting based on age, gender and location.

However, Angwin and Parris noted that there are federal laws around housing and employment that prohibit discriminatory advertising. In fact, they said that when they showed the ad-targeting options to civil rights lawyer John Relman, he responded, “This is horrifying. This is massively illegal. This is about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find.”

Facebook has responded with a blog post from Christian Martinez, its head of multicultural. Martinez notes that ethnic affinity isn’t based on your ethnicity, exactly, but rather whether your “likes and other activity on Facebook suggest [you’re] interested in content relating to particular ethnic communities” — and that users can adjust their ad targeting preferences. (This might sound like a lawyerly distinction, but then, we are talking a potential legal issue.)

Martinez also says this kind of targeting isn’t a bad thing:

For example, a nonprofit that’s hosting a career fair for the Hispanic community can use Facebook ads to reach people who have an interest in that community. And a merchant selling hair care products that are designed for black women can reach people who are most likely to want its products.

As for the more discriminatory practices that this targeting could enable, Martinez says:

Our ad policies strictly prohibit this kind of advertising, and it’s against the law. If we learn of advertising on our platform that involves this kind of discrimination, we will take aggressive enforcement action. We also realize that, as a website, we often aren’t in a position to know the details of an apartment rental or job application — and so we will also remove an ad from our platform if the government agency responsible for enforcing discrimination laws tells us that the ad reflects illegal discrimination.