Is Facebook on the Wrong Side of Civil Rights?

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019 at 3:16 pm by Olivia Smith

Introduction

Today, over 50 years since the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was enacted into law, the rise of sophisticated targeted digital advertising presents nuanced housing discrimination issues for our country and our tech giants like Facebook. In 2011, Facebook settled with the FTC on charges that it deceived its consumers and shared its users’ personal data with advertisers. Just last month, in March 2019, Facebook settled with the ACLU and other civil rights groups, to make “meaningful” changes to its advertising platform in an effort to reduce advertising discrimination. Despite these Settlements, Facebook’s promises to fight discrimination continue to fall shockingly short.

Most recently, days after Facebook settled with the ACLU on discrimination issues, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) charged Facebook for enabling (and profiting) from discriminatory housing advertisements on its platform.   Under the Fair Housing Act, it is unlawful to refuse “to publish advertising for…dwellings…because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.”  The complaint alleges that Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude user profiles “classified as parents, non-American-born, non-Christian, interested in accessibility, interested in Hispanic culture, or a wide variety of other interests that closely align with the Fair Housing Act’s protected classes.”

Facebook’s stance  

In its press releases responding to these discrimination complaints, Facebook maintains a tone of moral uprightness, as Sheryl Sandberg wrote “[t]here is a long history of discrimination in the areas of housing, employment and credit, and this harmful behavior should not happen through Facebook ads.”  But as the COO of a company who is the perpetrator, Sandberg’s statement sounds resoundingly hollow. The 221 million active Facebook users in the U.S., need more from Facebook than a hypothetical “should”. We need Sandberg and Facebook to say, “discrimination will not happen at Facebook.”

As now seen in the months leading up to the Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress last spring, Facebook is quick to play the victim, the third-party platform who got “used” or “deceived’ by other less moral entities. Yet, Facebook massively profits from these data breaches and discriminatory advertisements. Accordingly to the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), Facebook is the actual deceiver. Just last week, Facebook announced it expected a multi-billion dollar fine from the FTC for violating its 2011 Settlement and violating FTC Law on Unfair or Deceptive Acts or Practices.

If Facebook is so focused on protecting civil rights, why does Facebook continue to collect and store data on its user’s race and national origin? The cynical answer is: because its profitable for Facebook and the companies that pay Facebook to advertise. The business answer is that is allows ads to be more targeted which enhances the consumer’s experience, but at what greater social cost?

Why such secrecy?

Facebook is also quick to defend their assertion that they do not sell data. This claim is offensively misleading; advertising revenue is Facebook’s livelihood.  Advertisers pay the premium for Facebook advertising in large part because of the detailed data Facebook has on its billions of users. The more detailed the data, the more targeted the advertisement, the greater the return is for the cost of advertising.  In fact, the HUD complaint alleges that Facebook even promote its ability to offer successful targeted housing and mortgage advertising.

Rob Goldman, Facebook’s Vice President of Advertising, tried to argue that Facebook was financially incentivized to protect civil rights “[o]ur business model only works if it works for people — if people don’t, they won’t come to Facebook, advertisers won’t be able to reach them, and we won’t have a business.” Rob Goldman’s argument is the classic market-response argument that people will “shop their values.” In other words, if a Facebook user feels displeased with Facebook’s use of their data, then they will take their user profile elsewhere. This logic, however, fails when there is no other venue, no other Facebook, for a consumer to “shop her values.”  Rob Goldman’s comment also absurdly assumes that people know when their civil rights are being violated. Even more alarming is Facebook’s refusal to show its users their advertising history. This is shocking. A company that built its empire on its ability to store its billions of users’ past photos, wall posts, messages, likes/ dislikes year-after- year, refuses to show its users the thousands of personalized, targeted ads that have inundated the user’s new feed. Mark Zuckerberg said that “[b]y giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more​ transparent” and yet Facebook is adamantly denying transparency in its own operations and user advertising. What is so bad about a user’s targeted ad history that Facebook has refused to make it public? What is Facebook hiding?

Conclusion

Ultimately, I am left with two questions for Facebook. First, will you be on the right side of history in defending your decision to profit on users’ data that is directly related to protected groups attributes? And second, when can I see my “ad history” on Facebook?