SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook has been sued for discrimination in housing and employment based on the ability of advertisers to target ads at specific “ethnic affinities.”
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California last week, accuses the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company with violating federal anti-discrimination laws for housing and employment.
The practice came to light late last month when the non-profit news organization Pro Publica published an analysis showing the social network lets advertisers target who sees their ads by “ethnic affinity.”
The wording on Facebook's ad-buy page under “Narrow audience” says “EXCLUDE people who match at least ONE of the following," and includes African American, Asian Americans and four categories of Hispanics. Ad purchasers can also add demographic interest or behaviors they want to exclude.
The suit notes that there is no option in the Facebook platform to exclude the demographic of "White or Caucasian Americans from the target audience."
Facebook policies prohibit the use of its ad targeting to discriminate against racial or ethnic groups. The company says the targeting was meant to allow advertisers to test various marketing strategies and focuses on affinities.
"The lawsuit is utterly without merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously. Multicultural marketing is a common practice in the ad industry and helps brands reach audiences with more relevant advertising. Our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law,” Facebook spokeswoman Genevieve Grdina said in a statement.
According to Facebook guidelines, "What we are referring to in these affinity groups is not their genetic makeup, but their affinity to the cultures they are interested in."
Karen Savage in New York and Victor Onuoha and Suzanne-Juliette Mobley in Louisiana are the plaintiffs in the suit, which accuses Facebook of allowing those posting housing and employment ads to discriminate, in violation of the Fair Housing Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Their suit alleges that affinity groups are a proxy for users' race, gender, family status and national origin.
The suit notes that the defendants are not seeking to end Facebook's Ad Platform or the "Exclude People" mechanism, but only "to end the illegal, proscribed uses of these functions."