“Going forward, we are determined to do better. Until we can better ensure that our tools will not be used inappropriately, we are disabling the option

 

In an effort to prevent housing discrimination, starting today, Dec. 1, Facebook will temporarily block all of its advertisers from hiding ads from users based on race while it reviews the use of the “exclusion” feature in its ad targeting tool, non-profit investigative journalism outlet ProPublica reported.

The social media giant made the decision after ProPublica reported last week it was able to buy dozens of Facebook rental housing ads that excluded certain types of users from seeing the ads, including African Americans, Asian Americans, parents, people interested in wheelchair ramps, expats from Mexico, Jews and Spanish speakers.

ProPublica housing ad excluding African Americans

Such users are protected classes under the Fair Housing Act, a federal anti-discrimination law established in 1968 that makes it illegal “[t]o make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin, or an intention to make any such preference, limitation, or discrimination.”

Some state fair housing laws cover additional characteristics, such as sexual orientation, marital status, ancestry and creed. All real estate agents and brokers must abide by fair housing laws.

Facebook had previously promised to ban housing ads targeted by race from its social network and blamed a “technical failure” for allowing the continued purchase of discriminatory ads. Until now, the company had allowed advertisers that weren’t promoting housing, employment, or credit opportunities to target users by race.

“Going forward, we are determined to do better. Until we can better ensure that our tools will not be used inappropriately, we are disabling the option that permits advertisers to exclude multicultural affinity segments from the audience for their ads,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said in a letter Wednesday to the Congressional Black Caucus and published by ProPublica.

Facebook will also require all advertisers who wish to include audiences by race to self-certify that they are complying with Facebook’s anti-discrimination policy and with applicable law, Sandberg added.

That self-certification requirement will be introduced over the next several weeks, said Rob Goldman, Facebook’s vice president of ad products, in a separate emailed statement.

Goldman said that in addition to banning ads that exclude by race, ads targeting or excluding “potentially sensitive segments” — such as people in the LGBT community or religious groups —  “are subject to expanded review before they appear on Facebook.”

He added that Facebook would share what it learned in its review “with groups focused on discrimination in ads, work with them to identify further improvements we can make, and then publish the steps we’re taking.”

Email Andrea V. Brambila.

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