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Does Facebook customization option enable illegal housing discrimination ads?

Select who you want to advertise to…and who you don’t

News of Zillow’s partnership with Facebook to allow agents to send targeted ads to potential homebuyers was still hot off the press when a new report pointed out that the social media site's options could allow for illegal advertising.

A report from ProPublica shows that Facebook has an ad customization option called “Ethnic Affinities,” which allows advertisers to target or exclude specific ethnic groups from their ads, according to an article by CNN and published on KTLA.

Of course, this kind of selective housing advertising runs afoul of the Fair Housing Act.

While Facebook may not ask users for their race, it can infer it from its massive amounts of data, according to the article.

From the article:

ProPublica tested this feature by posting an ad for a housing event that it requested not be shown to anyone with an “Ethnic Affinity” of African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic. It said that the ad was approved in 15 minutes.

Since the ProPublica ad was for an event, not actually selling a house, it wasn’t technically illegal. But civil rights attorney John Relman, who called the exclusionary ads “horrifying,” told CNNMoney there are numerous non-discrimination laws at both the federal and local level that could potentially be violated with ads that exclude minorities.

“NCRC is shocked and appalled to learn that Facebook appears to be engaging in practices that are not only discriminatory, but also illegal,” said John Taylor, National Community Reinvestment Coalition president and CEO. “Facebook claims that its goal is to 'help balance the needs, safety and interests of a diverse community.

“Clearly, offering advertisers the option to exclude users of certain races, as documented in a recent ProPublica report, is directly contrary to the interests of a diverse community,” Taylor said. “It is also a flagrant violation of laws that protect people from discrimination.”

So what was Facebook’s response?

From the article:

Facebook says the ad targeting options are meant to let advertisers granularly target only those individuals who would be interested in the product.

So-called “exclusion targeting” is common in the advertising industry, he [Christian Martinez, head of multicultural at Facebook] said, and when Facebook sees published ads that violate the rules, it promptly removes them.

(Photo credit: gmstockstudio /

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