Facebook Takes Steps to Prevent Bias in the Way It Shows Ads – The New York Times

Facebook and many businesses that have used its platform to designate ad targets by gender, age or race have long maintained that the practice can be legitimate.

For example, an advertiser might want to show men and women different versions of the same message to test marketing strategies. Some advertisers also say they use Facebook to aim at certain groups — like young people — but place similar ads using other media, like the radio or print magazines, to appeal to older people.

But many legal experts have said that advertisers who engage in this targeting nonetheless faced a serious risk of liability under discrimination laws. Litigation and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charges against employers that have used Facebook in this way are proceeding and will be unaffected by the settlement.

The question of Facebook’s own liability, on the other hand, has been murkier. While it is illegal under federal law to publish a discriminatory housing ad, the law typically holds only employers and employment agencies, and not passive ad publishers, culpable for discriminatory job ads. Many state laws are more aggressive.

On top of this, Facebook has long argued that it enjoys broad immunity under the federal law that shields internet companies from liability over content produced by third parties.

One possible exception to these defenses would arise if Facebook were more directly involved in developing the ads — for example, if its algorithms, and not parameters that advertisers choose overtly, were responsible for shaping an ad’s audience. The changes announced Tuesday, which do not appear to preclude such targeting, may not save Facebook from liability in these contexts.

Beyond eliminating the option of aiming housing, employment and credit ads at audiences according to certain demographic characteristics, Facebook will prevent advertisers from marketing to users according to their ZIP code, a practice that could enable redlining.


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