Ad Me on Social Media: Facebook sued for discriminatory ads

November 13, 2019

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Facebook, the world’s second largest seller of advertisements, is being sued for discrimination against older females for withholding advertising for financial services, such as bank accounts, insurance, investments and loans.

What does this mean?

The complaint was filed by Neutah Opiotennione, a 54-year old woman seeking damages under a potential class action, for violation of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act. 

Neutah alleges she was deprived of financial services adverts because Facebook had not taken any steps to prevent marketers from targeting an audience based on age and gender. As a result, they could limit financial adverts to people aged “24 to 40” and “men aged 20 or older”, except for advertisements on credit opportunities.

This is a direct violation of the Civil Rights Act. It states all people in California, regardless of sex, race, medical condition or other characteristics, are entitled to “full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.” It also provides $4,000 in compensation per violation.

What's the big picture effect?

Today’s financial marketplace is increasingly digital. Bank branches are closing in favour of online personal finance. This makes the internet, and platforms like Facebook, a major gateway for finding information about financial services. With the site’s targeting tools and algorithms, Facebook can determine exactly which groups get to see financial services information every day.

These algorithms make it difficult to check if groups of people are being excluded from financial opportunities online. Advertisers can upload lists of their best customers and Facebook will find similar users based on set characteristics identified by its algorithm. So, if the list it is given is full of white men, it could show adverts only to groups of other white men. 

This is why Facebook has been subject to several lawsuits by civil rights groups from November 2016 to September 2018, for letting employers, landlords and lenders discriminate by age, gender and location on job, housing and credit adverts. To settle these cases, Facebook agreed to change its targeted advertising system only to be sued for discrimination 7 months later.

Given the mountain of cases building up against Facebook, it is blatantly obvious that Facebook’s algorithms are in clear need of reform. Whether or not this change will happen quick enough to protect others from potentially discriminatory targeting is unclear.

Report written by Evania D’souza

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