Facebook Tweaks Its “Ethnic Affinity” Advertising Feature To Address Discrimination Concerns

After coming under fire for allowing advertisers to use race-related information to exclude entire swaths of Facebook users from seeing an ad, the social media company has decided to tweak this feature to address concerns that it could be used to illegally discriminate against people based on their perceived ethnicity.

To be clear: Facebook does not ask for or include race in users’ profiles. However, as we recently wrote about, the company looks at users’ interactions to determine their “Ethnic Affinity.”

Facebook also allows advertisers to use this demographic data point — along with a number of others — to narrow the audience for the ads they place. However, because this feature allows the advertiser to outright exclude entire ethnic groups (or at least exclude those who are believed to be part of — or identify culturally with — an ethnic group), that gets into legally problematic waters if the advertisement involves something like a job listing or a home listing.

Federal laws prohibit discrimination against people based on — among other things — their ethnicity. In fact, the Fair Housing Act explicitly prohibits the printing or publishing of any ad involving the sale or rental of a dwelling that “indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin, or an intention to make any such preference, limitation, or discrimination.”

While Facebook has not done away with the Affinity options, this morning the company announced that it will not allow this information to be used to determine the audience for certain types of ads.

“We will disable the use of ethnic affinity marketing for ads that we identify as offering housing, employment, or credit,” writes Erin Egan, Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer. “There are many non-discriminatory 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.”

Egan says Facebook will also update its Advertising Policies to require that advertisers “affirm that they will not engage in discriminatory advertising on Facebook.”

When the Ethnic Affinity story made headlines in October, a rep for Facebook initially defended the feature in emails to Consumerist, repeatedly giving the example of an advertiser who wants to only target Spanish-speaking users.

However, the company refused to directly answer our questions about why Spanish was the only language qualifier in the Ethnic Affinity options, when the others were incredibly far-reaching categories like “African American” or “Asian American,” representing dozens of countries, and even more languages and cultures.

Additionally, as we showed, the advertiser’s interface on Facebook already has an entirely separate field for language. If an advertiser wants to reach Spanish-speaking people in America, that option is available without having to get into questions of ethnicity.