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Facebook takes steps to protect you from discriminatory ads

Advertisers that run housing, employment or credit ads won't be able to target users by age, gender or ZIP code.

Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg 
James Martin/CNET

Facebook is making changes to a range of ads on the social network in an effort to protect its users who are searching for a job or housing from discrimination. 

Advertisers that run housing, employment and credit ads will no longer be able to target users based on age, gender or ZIP code, and will also have fewer options when it comes to targeting users, Facebook said Tuesday. The company also said it's building a tool so users can search for housing ads throughout the US. 

"Housing, employment and credit ads are crucial to helping people buy new homes, start great careers, and gain access to credit," said Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in a blog post. "They should never be used to exclude or harm people."

The changes are part of a settlement that Facebook reached with civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed lawsuits against the social network alleging that Facebook allowed advertisers to discriminate against users by excluding people from seeing certain housing, employment and credit ads based on gender, age and where they lived. 

Civil rights groups, labor organizations, workers and consumers filed five discrimination lawsuits against Facebook between 2016 and 2018, according to the settlement posted by the ACLU. The changes also affect ads placed on Facebook-owned Instagram and messaging app Messenger. 

Facebook has been under mounting pressure to change its advertising tools after ProPublica reported in 2016 that the world's largest social network allowed advertisers to place housing ads that excluded users by race, which is illegal under federal law. In response, Facebook pulled a tool that allowed advertisers to exclude users from seeing housing, employment and credit ads based on their "ethnic affinity."

But Facebook continued to receive more complaints that its advertising tools were also being used by employers to post job ads that excluded women or older workers. 

"Discrimination in advertising for jobs, housing and credit has been unlawful since the 1960s and '70s with the enactment of our civil rights laws," said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU during a conference call. "But the ability to target ads to users based on their data and online behavior has been threatening to give this kind of discrimination a new life in the 21st century." 

Sherwin said advertisers will have to certify whether they're placing a housing, employment or credit ad on Facebook. Targeting options for these advertisers will decrease from tens of thousands to a few hundred, she said. These advertisers, for example, won't be able to target soccer moms, new dads and wheelchair users or people who are similar to their current customers. And they won't be able to target users less than 15 miles away from a specific address or the center of a city, according to the ACLU.

Civil rights groups will also be testing housing, employment and credit ads on Facebook to make sure the company implements the changes it's promising. Advocacy groups will also be on the lookout for any advertisers who are trying to skirt Facebook's new ad rules. 

A Facebook spokesperson said the company doesn't break out how many housing, employment or credit ads are placed on the social network every month or year. 

Originally published March 19, 11:39 a.m. PT
Update, 2:09 p.m. PT: Includes remarks from ACLU's conference calls, details about the settlement and comment from a Facebook spokesperson.

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