When a company repeatedly breaks the same law, it calls into question whether that company is insufficiently committed to observing the law, or whether it’s sufficiently competent.
Last year, Facebook was found to be enabling advertisers to exclude users from seeing their ads based on their race and ethnicity. That’s not only a potential violation of the US’s Civil Rights Act, but also the Fair Housing Act which prohibits landlords and employers from using race to discriminate in housing.
Following a public backlash and threats of a legal challenge by the Congressional Black Caucus, Facebook said it would end the practice when it came to ads for housing, credit or employment.
It has now emerged that Facebook continued to permit housing ads which exclude black, Jewish and disabled audiences.
Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg announced – again – that the company will disable the option to exclude ethnic groups “until we can better ensure that our tools will not be used inappropriately”.
So, how did one of the world’s largest and most cashed-up companies fail to make the necessary coding change to its main product, despite having made the commitment in 2016…?
In a statement, Facebook said it put “safeguards” in place following the original report, but because of a “technical glitch” the practice continued.
“This was a failure in our enforcement and we’re disappointed that we fell short of our commitments. Earlier this year, we added additional safeguards to protect against the abuse of our multicultural affinity tools to facilitate discrimination in housing, credit and employment. The rental housing ads purchased by ProPublica should have but did not trigger the extra review and certifications we put in place due to a technical failure.”
Automated Racial Profiling?
In their 2016 investigation, ProPublica found that Facebook never explicitly asks anyone their race. However, users are assigned an “ethnic affinity” (eg. “African American” or “Latino”) based on their behaviour. A feature of Facebook’s advertising platform enabled advertisers to exclude some ethnic affinity groups from seeing their ads … except for Whites/Caucasians, for which there is no ethnic affinity category.
Facebook users are unable to change the ethnic affinity assigned to them by Facebook.
Facebook said it is ending exclusions for all ads. However, Facebook’s statement “until we can better ensure that our tools will not be used inappropriately” suggests the move may be only temporary.
Facebook has previously said it believes targeted ethnic affinity advertising has legitimate uses. For example, a fundraiser for Latino people may want to focus its ads on Spanish-speaking users.
Sandberg is getting plenty of practice apologising for Facebook’s errors around racial profiling. Just over a month ago, a separate ProPublica investigation found Facebook had temporarily permitted advertisers to target users who described themselves as “Jew haters”. Sandberg explained that misstep as an algorithmic flaw.
But, back to my opening observation… Repeating the same mistakes begs the question of whether Facebook is insufficiently committed to eliminating racial discrimination on its platform, or incompetent in managing itself.