Facebook has a controversial history when it comes to abetting discriminatory ad practices on its platform. But following a litany of investigations, a lot of bad press, and most recently, an official complaint from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Facebook is trying to clean up its mess.
Today, the social network announced in a blog post that it is going to remove more than 5000 targeting options for advertisers on its platform “to help prevent misuse”. Facebook will get rid of these options this spring, according to BuzzFeed.
We reached out for comment on an exact timeline but had not heard back at time of writing.
“While these options have been used in legitimate ways to reach people interested in a certain product or service, we think minimising the risk of abuse is more important,” Facebook wrote in the post. “This includes limiting the ability for advertisers to exclude audiences that relate to attributes such as ethnicity or religion.”
The discriminatory misuse of its advertising product has been on Facebook’s radar since at least 2016, when ProPublica published an investigation on how the tech giant enabled advertisers to exclude specific groups based on race and gender.
Facebook was again found guilty of enabling this troubling practice at the end of last year — another ProPublica investigation found it was still letting housing ads on the service effectively exclude black, Jewish and disabled users — after the company said it would no longer allow it.
Today’s announcement also closely trails the US HUD’s discrimination complaint, which was filed against Facebook at the end of last week. The department wrote in a press release that Facebook’s ad system has allowed advertisers to circumvent the federal US Fair Housing Act by affording them the option to deny members of protected groups access to certain ads.
HUD included the ability to show ads “either only to men or women” as one example, as well as hiding ads from people with self-reported interests such as “assistance dog” or “accessibility”.
Facebook reportedly denied that the removal of the thousands of targeted ad options was in response to the HUD complaint. “We’ve been building these tools for a long time and collecting input from different outside groups,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed.
It’s certainly a positive, albeit astoundingly belated, move for Facebook to make some sweeping changes to its advertising model, given the platform’s history. Though it’s unclear why it took the company years to deploy a substantive solution to an issue impacting its most vulnerable users.