Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed Facebook’s history allowing advertisers to discriminate by race in housing ads during his testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees Tuesday afternoon.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed Facebook’s history of allowing advertisers to discriminate by race in housing ads during his testimony in front of the Senate judiciary and commerce committees Tuesday afternoon.

Zuckerberg appeared before the joint committee to answer questions about Cambridge Analytica, a political firm that obtained the data of 87 million Facebook users and used that information on behalf of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Most of those 87 million people did not consent to give their Facebook data to the third-party developer, and instead had it taken because a Facebook friend gave the group permission through a personality quiz. Most of the hearing’s questions focused on data privacy and Facebook’s ability to monitor the misuse of personal data by bad actors.

“In general, it is against our policies to have any ads that are discriminatory,” Zuckerberg said in response to a question from Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, about discriminatory housing ads during the second hour of his testimony.

“We’ve removed the ability to exclude ethnic groups and other sensitive categories from ad targeting,” he continued. “That just isn’t a feature that’s even available anymore. For some of these cases, where it may make sense to target proactively a group, the enforcement today — we review ads, we screen them up front — most of the enforcement today is still that our community flags issues for us when they come up. If the community flags that issue for us, then our team, which has thousands of people working on it, should take it down. We’ll make some mistakes, but we try to make as few as possible. Over time, the strategy would be to develop more AI [artificial intelligence] tools that can more proactively identify that kind of content and do that filtering up front.”

ProPublica in 2016 found that Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude ethnic groups when posting ads for housing. Facebook at the time said it would prevent this from happening again, but a year later ProPublica found it was still able to place similar discriminatory ads. Facebook is being sued by the National Fair Housing Alliance in connection with these reports.

Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware who was the first senator to bring up housing discrimination during the hearing in the preamble to a question a few minutes before Zuckerberg responded to the issue directly, connected that failure to Facebook’s current problems with user data and Cambridge Analytica.

“My concern is that this practice of making bold and engaging promises about changes and practices and then the reality of how Facebook has operated in the real world are in persistent tension,” Coons said.

Many people have brought up Facebook’s history of apologizing without making significant changes, but Coons was the first senator to connect Facebook’s failures in housing discrimination to that pattern.

About housing ads specifically, Hirono asked Zuckerberg how the public can verify Facebook has finally eliminated these capabilities or if users have to trust Facebook’s word.

Zuckerberg’s response, that Facebook is relying on artificial intelligence that will be further developed and refined over the next several years, was similar to many of his responses to other questions about moderating hate speech, terrorist threats and election interference on the platform.

Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, pressed Zuckerberg further on the issue of Facebook’s discriminatory housing ads and their perpetuation of America’s dark history of discrimination against low-income Americans and Americans of color in the housing and mortgage businesses.

“I’ve always seen technology as a promise to democratize our nation, expand access, expand opportunities, but unfortunately we’ve also seen how platforms — technology platforms like Facebook — can actually be used to double-down on discrimination and give people more sophisticated tools with which to discriminate,” Booker said.

He questioned Zuckerberg on whether Facebook’s “self-certification” system that allows advertisers — and companies like Cambridge Analytica — to police their own compliance with Facebook’s rules and federal law is enough to prevent discrimination and bad practices.

“Given the fact that you allowed Cambridge Analytica to self-certify in a way that … I think you expressed regret over, is self-certification the best and strongest way to safeguard against the misuse of your platform and protect the data of users, and not let it be manipulated in such a discriminatory fashion?” Booker asked Zuckerberg.

Booker spoke to the distrust of Facebook brewing among civil rights organizations, and asked whether Zuckerberg would consider involvement by these organizations in the auditing of companies operating on Facebook in the critical areas of credit and housing, in order to increase transparency.

“Senator, I think that’s a very good idea, and I think we should follow up on the details of that,” Zuckerberg said in his response to Booker.

Zuckerberg will appear before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Wednesday.

Email Emma Hinchliffe

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