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Facebook legally bound to stop discriminatory advertising

Washington

FACEBOOK signed a legally binding pledge on Tuesday promising that it would not allow advertisers to exclude people on the basis of race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation and other protected categories from viewing certain ads on the site, a widespread practice that investigators in the state of Washington called "unlawful discrimination".

The settlement with Attorney-General Bob Ferguson - the result of a roughly two-year probe of the social giant - also guarantees that ads for housing, employment, credit, insurance and "public accommodations" cannot be hidden from users of a particular national origin, veteran or military status, sexual orientation, disability status, religion or race.

Because it is legally enforceable, the settlement holds Facebook to a higher standard than previous commitments, which until Tuesday had been voluntary. It also expands the types of ads that will receive more enforcement from Facebook.

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The state's probe stemmed from a series of reports in ProPublica, beginning in 2016, that found advertisers - using Facebook's micro-targeting tools - could conceal housing ads from African American users and other minorities. Investigators in the attorney-general's office said on Tuesday that they tested the system by creating "20 fake ads" on Facebook as part of their investigation in November and December 2017, touching everything from nightclubs to employment opportunities, that "excluded one or more ethnic minorities".

After the ProPublica investigation, Facebook said that it would no longer let advertisers target ads for housing, credit offers and employment by "ethnic affinities", a category that the social network had previously created to enable businesses to reach minority groups.

Even after Facebook's first pledge, which was voluntary, reports revealed that advertisers who posted housing ads were still able to exclude people on the basis of race, calling into question Facebook's promise of stepped-up enforcement. Facebook's ad system also automatically approved housing excluding other types of people, such as mothers of high school kids, Jews and Spanish speakers.

Tuesday's agreement with Washington makes the commitment legally binding. As part of its settlement, Facebook did not have to admit that it violated state anti-discrimination laws as part of the proceeding, but it could face additional penalties if Washington finds other, future instances of discrimination.

The order technically covers only Facebook's business within the state, but Mr Ferguson said that the company would adhere to the policy nationally. "If a restaurant owner put a sign out front that said, 'whites only,' we all know the reaction. Well, my team posted an ad on Facebook that said 'whites only,' and it got accepted," he said in an interview.

In response, Will Castleberry, Facebook's vice-president for state and local policy, said in a statement that the company had "worked closely with them to address the issues they've raised", adding: "Discriminatory advertising has no place on our platform, and we'll continue to improve our ad products so they're relevant, effective, and safe for everyone."

Like its peers in Silicon Valley, California, Facebook has struggled to find its footing on issues of race and discrimination. Even within its own ranks, white men make up much of its workforce: Black employees, in contrast, hold about one per cent of the technical roles at Facebook, while Hispanic employees hold 3 per cent, according to data the company released in July. Both numbers are relatively unchanged from the previous year. WP