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Facebook ramps up efforts to prevent discriminatory ad targeting

The social network will step up enforcement and add US housing ads to an online database.

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Facebook wants users to report discriminatory housing ads. 

Graphic by Pixabay/Illustration by CNET

Facebook said Tuesday it's expanding its efforts to prevent advertisers from discriminating against some groups, a move the social media giant hopes will fend off criticism its ad-targeting can be used to exclude minorities and older people, among others. The company also said it would include housing ads in a searchable public database on the social network.

In March, Facebook said advertisers running housing, employment and credit ads would no longer be able to target users based on age, gender, ZIP code and other characteristics. Facebook started enforcing these rules within a tool called Ads Manager, which allows users to create and keep track of their ads. 

Starting Wednesday, Facebook will ramp up enforcement of these rules across all its ad buying tools on both the main social network and Instagram, its photo-sharing service. Facebook is also including housing ads in its Ad Library, a database that lets people search for ads about social issues, elections or politics on the social network. The new section will include US housing ads that started running or were edited on or after Wednesday. 

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Facebook's Ad Library will include a section for housing ads. 

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

The changes could help Facebook identify discriminatory ads that evade the company's detection. The company relies on advertisers to certify whether they're placing a housing, employment or credit ad on Facebook. It also uses technology to detect when these types of ads are being created. Human reviewers check if the ads are being classified correctly and users can also report ads that violate its rules. 

"The ad library is so important because it enables interested advocates, people, et cetera to look at all of our ads as they're live in our system and tell us whether we got it right or wrong," said Graham Mudd, vice president of product marketing for ads at Facebook. 

Mudd said he expects there could eventually be hundreds of thousands of housing ads in the database after Facebook introduces the new section. Employment and credit ads will be included in the database over the next year, he said. Mudd didn't have an estimate of how many housing, employment or credit ads have been reported by users since March but said he didn't believe it was a "large number."

The steps build on a March settlement that Facebook reached with civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union. The social network faced several lawsuits alleging it allowed advertisers to discriminate against users by excluding people from seeing certain housing, employment and credit ads based on gender, age and location. As part of Facebook's agreement with the groups, the company restricted targeting for housing, credit and employment ads and said it would create a page to allow Facebook users to search for and view all current housing ads.

The ACLU didn't immediately provide a comment.

The settlement hasn't ended complaints about discriminatory ad targeting on Facebook. In late October, 54-year-old Neutah Opiotennione in Washington DC sued the company for allegedly denying her ads about financial services over the past three years because of her gender and age. The proposed class-action lawsuit included examples in which advertisers for loans, life insurance and other financial services targeted users by age and gender. 

Mudd said Facebook is currently looking at the claims in the lawsuit and the company would "certainly take action" if they find any bias. While Facebook's current system isn't "perfect," Mudd called the added measures a "meaningful step forward."

"We'll continue to improve it and invest in other areas where we see potential harm from discrimination," he said.