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New York Is Investigating Whether Facebook Lets Advertisers Discriminate

The state’s Department of Financial Services will look into allegations, first exposed by ProPublica, that advertisers can exclude users by race, gender, age and other characteristics that are protected under federal law.

New York state’s Department of Financial Services has launched an investigation into reports that advertisers can use Facebook’s targeted advertising tools to discriminate against protected groups of people.

The investigation, announced Monday, is the latest action against the social media company’s advertising system. In March, Facebook reached a settlement with civil rights groups and agreed to make sweeping changes to the ways landlords, employers and lenders buy housing, employment or credit ads. A week later, the Department of Housing and Urban Development charged Facebook with violating the Fair Housing Act, claiming that the ad system discriminates against certain types of users even when advertisers did not choose to exclude them from seeing ads.

In a press release July 1, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state’s investigation will explore both the tools available to advertisers and allegations that Facebook “uses machine learning and predictive analytics to categorize users to project each user’s likely response to a given ad, which may recreate groupings defined by their protected class.”

ProPublica first reported that Facebook allowed housing advertisers to exclude users by race in 2016. Then, in 2017, ProPublica returned to the issue and found that — despite Facebook’s promised changes — the company was still letting landlords exclude users by race, gender, ethnicity, family status, ability and other characteristics protected by federal anti-discrimination law.

In response to these lawsuits, Facebook has said it will create a new advertising portal specifically for advertisers buying housing, employment and credit ads, limiting the options available and removing more than 5,000 categories related to race, gender, national origin and age. These changes are to be completed by September 2019, according to a civil rights audit released this week.

In response to questions about New York’s investigation, a Facebooks spokesman pointed ProPublica to the civil rights audit. In a related blog post, COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote: “Our policies have always prohibited advertisers from using our tools to discriminate. In 2018, we went further by removing thousands of categories from targeting related to protected classes such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion. But we can do better.”

The civil rights audit also recommended stronger hate speech policies and stricter rules to prevent the spread of white supremacy on Facebook, a topic in the spotlight after ProPublica obtained offensive posts in a secret group for current and former Border Patrol agents. A Facebook spokesperson has refused to answer any questions about how it policed this group, citing a federal investigation.

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Portrait of Ariana Tobin

Ariana Tobin

Ariana is an engagement editor and reporter at ProPublica, where she works to cultivate communities to inform our coverage.

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