Facebook agrees to ad overhaul to settle US discrimination suits

The move comes after journalists and civil rights organizations exposed sales of discriminatory ads on Facebook

The move comes after journalists and civil rights organizations exposed sales of discriminatory housing and employment ads. Sean Gallup Getty Images

On Tuesday, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, announced on the company's website thatthe changes "will better protect people on Facebook".

From November 2016 to September 2018, the company was hit with five discrimination lawsuits and charges from civil rights and labor organizations, workers and individuals.

It's important to note that going forward Facebook will enact a structural change in an effort to prevent malicious actors from gaming its all-too-easily gamed system.

ProPublica later reported that it was able to buy discriminatory housing ads and slip them past Facebook's review process, despite the company's claims it was blocking such ads.

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A joint statement by the advocacy groups, including the National Fair Housing Alliance, said in a statement that the agreement represented a "significant and historic precedent for big data and tech companies" because it makes clear the information they collect can't be used to discriminate. This is part of Facebook's advertising overhaul to prevent discrimination. It will also pay out $5m to the various parties that sued it, of which $2.5m will go toward training advertisers on how to comply with housing and lending laws.

How, and even if, that can be avoided is still a hot topic among machine learning experts, but even so, anything Facebook can do to limit active targeting in this regard is a positive step.

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This isn't the first time Facebook has faced scrutiny over its targeted ads being discriminatory.

Facebook is now being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), a number of state attorneys general and the Department of Justice over its data-handling. The settlement includes a payout of about $5 million to plaintiffs, mostly to defray legal costs.

The leading social network said housing, employment or credit ads will no longer be allowed to target by age, gender or zip code - a practice critics argued had led to discrimination. Facebook really ran wild with the practice, as ProPublica investigations found that buyers could target housing and employment ads to whites only, or to exclude African Americans, Jews, or people who primarily speak Spanish.

The company will also roll out a new page where US users can search for and see current housing-related ads, even if those ads didn't appear on their News Feed. The Menlo Park, California-based internet giant, criticised for years about privacy breaches, hate speech and its use by Russian Federation and others to interfere with elections, has been under intense scrutiny since last week when an alleged gunman livestreamed the mass murder of 50 people in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Is today's promise to change any different?

"Our policies already prohibit advertisers from using our tools to discriminate". Customized advertising based on user data has helped the company to expand its earnings.

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