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Facebook pulls ad tool that excluded ethnic groups

Advertisers won't be able to keep ads for housing, job opportunities or credit off your feed based on your "ethnic affinity," Facebook says.

Facebook's advertising home page.
Screenshot by Laura Hautala/CNET

Advertising housing, jobs or credit in a way that excludes people based on their race or ethnicity? That's illegal, and Facebook responded Friday to fears that it was allowing advertisers to do just that.

The social-media company said in a blog post that it won't let advertisers use its "ethnic affinity groups" in ads that focus on those three legally protected categories.

"There are many nondiscriminatory uses of our ethnic affinity solution in these areas, but we have decided that we can best guard against discrimination by suspending these types of ads," wrote Erin Egan, vice president of US public policy and chief privacy officer at Facebook.

The groups aren't exactly based on the user's ethnic identity, but rather on what the user likes, dislikes and interacts with on Facebook. Those data points let the social network make the call that one user likes products that tend to appeal to a certain ethnic group.

The change comes two weeks after a report from ProPublica raised the fear that Facebook's tool was letting advertisers exclude users based on their racial or ethnic identity. The publication had been able to successfully exclude users in the Asian American, Hispanic and African American affinity groups when it purchased an ad for an event about fighting illegally high rents.

The ad ProPublica purchased would still be allowed under the new Facebook policy, because it was for a housing-related event and not for a house or apartment that was for sale or rent.

Similarly, the new rule might not apply to job coaching services, said Michael Carl Tschantz, a researcher at UC Berkeley who studies targeting in online advertising.

"There are many services that act as intermediaries between employees and employers; it's not clear whether they're recruiting firms or not," he said. These legal gray areas create pockets of housing- and job-related advertising that might be allowed to target users based on racial or ethnic groups.

Facebook is also facing a class-action lawsuit (PDF) that claims the advertising tool is discriminatory.