We all know it’s wrong to treat people differently based on their race, age or sex (or any number of ways you could possibly categorize someone), right? But what does the law have to say about discrimination?
We typically see workplace discrimination as a catalyst that could spark a lawsuit, but, according to a suit recently filed in California, the legal ramifications of discrimination even extend into the realm of personalized Facebook ad targeting.
What’s This All About?
Facebook’s advertising platform allows anyone who buys ad space to reach their specific target audience. Ads can be shown to an incredibly specific group of people using criteria including, but not limited to, their interests and what pages they frequent, down to whether they own or rent their home, are looking for a new job or work for a certain company.
But, according to the complaint against Facebook, the social media giant allows for illegal discrimination within the framework of its advertising targets. When setting up an ad campaign, advertisers are presented with the option to “exclude people” based on their sex, religion and even race (unless you want to exclude white people, because there isn’t an option for that).
The lawsuit focuses on the housing and employment markets, saying that Facebook allows for people to place an ad for a job opening or a house for sale that doesn’t show up on the news feeds (or timelines or whatever) of new mothers or people from Japan, for instance, for no real reason other than the advertiser not wanting them to see it.
What Laws Did Facebook Allegedly Break?
According to the lawsuit, Facebook violated both the Fair Housing Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Here’s how it breaks down:
Fair Housing Act:
The Act basically says that you can’t publish an ad for a home that’s for sale (or up for rent) if the ad actively excludes specific classes of people based on their race, religion, sex, skin color, familial status or national origin.
Civil Rights Act of 1964:
The Civil Rights Act says pretty much the same thing, except about employment. You aren’t allowed to refuse a job to someone or treat them differently because of any of the reasons given above.
What Could Be Gained If the Suit Goes Forward?
The plaintiffs in the case are looking to get the lawsuit certified as a class action so they can represent others who have been affected. The class outlined in the complaint does seem a bit hard to define, though. Check this out:
All natural person Facebook users located within the United States who have not seen an employment- or housing-related advertisement on Facebook within the last two years because the ad’s buyer used the Ad Platform’s “Exclude People” functionality to exclude the class member based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.
It seems fairly difficult to prove that someone didn’t see something, but what do I know? I’m no lawyer (yet).
The plaintiffs are also seeking your usual civil penalties, statutory damages and attorneys’ fees, as well as an order for Facebook to make some changes to the way its ads work.
Now, the lawsuit isn’t going all torches-and-pitchforks and trying to get Facebook’s ad platform removed entirely. In the complaint, it’s noted that Facebook’s ad service is a desirable one – so long as it’s legal. The plaintiffs simply want Facebook to remove the option to exclude people based on irrelevant criteria like race, sex, religion and so on.
It may sound like a simple open-and-shut case (discrimination is bad, end of story), but Facebook claims the suit is meritless. The social network maintains that the ad industry uses multicultural marketing to help companies reach audiences with ads that are relevant to them and that it prohibits the use of its targeting options to discriminate against any class of people.
So, will the court find that Facebook allows for discriminatory ad placement? Or, will it be determined that the social media giant isn’t liable and that the ad buyers need to take responsibility for their ads? We’ll have to stay tuned to see how this one pans out.