Facebook will disable “ethnic affinity” targeting for housing, employment and credit-related ads

It may be tough to remember given all the discussion about the role that Facebook’s News Feed may have played in getting Donald Trump elected, but the company was also criticized recently for its “ethnic affinity” ad targeting. Today, Facebook announced that it’s making some changes.

The targeting allows advertisers to focus on users whose Facebook activity indicates an interest in “content relating to particular ethnic communities.” A ProPublica report suggested that these capabilities could be used for discriminatory advertising — particularly in housing and employment, where such practices are illegal.

Facebook’s response at the time was to point out that it prohibits discriminatory ad practices and said it will take down any violating ads. In a blog post published this morning, Erin Egan — Facebook’s vice president for US public policy and its chief privacy officer — said the company will go further.

To be clear, Facebook isn’t abandoning “ethnic affinity” targeting. Instead, it says it’s building tools that will automatically disable the targeting for ads that involve housing, employment or credit.

“There are many non-discriminatory uses of our ethnic affinity solution in these areas, but we have decided that we can best guard against discrimination by suspending these types of ads,” Egan said. “We will continue to explore ways that our ethnic affinity solution can be used to promote inclusion of underrepresented communities, and we will continue to work with stakeholders toward that goal.”

In addition, Egan said Facebook will do more to educate advertisers on how to avoid discriminatory practices.

Apparently, the company didn’t make these decisions on its own. According to the post, Facebook met with government officials to discuss the issue, as well as having a “constructive dialogue” with groups including  the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the National Fair Housing Alliance, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Brookings Institution and Upturn.

Update: The office of Congresswoman Yvette Clarke sent us the following statement from Clarke:

I want to commend Facebook for listening to the Congressional Black Caucus and other concerned organizations and removing advertising functions that could facilitate racial discrimination in housing and other areas. To avoid these problems in the future, I urge Facebook and other technology companies to address the lack of diversity in the ranks of their leadership and staff by recruiting and retaining people of color and women.