Facebook Inc. has been hit with a lawsuit claiming that it violates federal anti-discrimination laws for housing and employment by allowing advertisers to exclude certain groups on the basis of race, gender or religion in social media ads.
In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Nov. 3, a New York woman and two African-American Louisiana residents claim that Facebook’s advertising portal allows ad-purchasers to target or exclude certain “ethnic affinities,” including “African-American,” “Asian-American,” and four categories of “Hispanic US.”
According to the complaint, plaintiffs have all used Facebook in searches for housing and employment in the past year. Plaintiffs claim that a button in Facebook’s ad tool labeled “Exclude People” can be used to publish discriminatory ads in violation of the Fair Housing Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The lawsuit appears to be the first targeting Facebook with discrimination claims after an Oct. 28 article from public interest journalism site ProPublica reported that Facebook’s advertising portal includes options to exclude people by racial affinity. The suit seeks to certify a class of all Facebook users who have been screened out of advertising in the past two years based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.
Steve Satterfield, a privacy and public policy manager at Facebook, told ProPublica last week that company policies prohibit advertisers from using the targeting options for discriminatory purposes.
“We take a strong stand against advertisers misusing our platform: Our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law,” Satterfield said. “We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.”
A Facebook spokesperson echoed Satterfield’s remarks in an emailed statement Friday afternoon called the lawsuit “utterly without merit.”
“Multicultural marketing is a common practice in the ad industry and helps brands reach audiences with more relevant advertising,” the spokesperson said. “Our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law.”
The complaint, however, points out that two ProPublica reporters were able to purchase a Facebook ad targeting house shoppers that excluded anyone with an African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic affinity and have it approved by Facebook in 15 minutes.
According to the lawsuit, Facebook builds a profile of users that include affinity groups to determine, among other things, the ads users see on the site. While Facebook claims that its affinity groups identify people who are “interested in and likely to respond well” to multicultural content, plaintiffs claim that they serve as “a proxy for characteristics such as a user’s race, gender, family status and national origin.” Plaintiffs also claim the platform allows exclusion by familial status (“Divorced,” “Parents (All),” and “Expectant parents”), by sex (“Moms”), and based on religion (“Christian,” “Muslim,” or “Sunni Islam.”)
New Orleans solo practitioners William Most and Jason Flanders and Sarah Hoffman of Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group in Albany, California, the attorneys who filed the suit, point out that there’s “no option in Facebook’s platform to exclude the ‘demographic’ of White or Caucasian Americans from the target audience.”
Reached by phone on Nov. 4, Most declined to comment.
The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.