On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Facebook and 10 other companies over alleged age and gender discrimination in targeted employment ads.
Facebook has repeatedly been called out for enabling advertisers to exclude certain groups of people from seeing certain types of ads, such as for housing and employment, on its platform. The social network recently said it’s taking steps to prevent these inequitable practices, but not everyone is satisfied with its clean-up job. The charges allege that Facebook has enabled at least 10 companies to display ads for jobs in male-dominated fields only to young males, according to a statement from the ACLU. The organization filed the charges with the Communications Workers of America and employment law firm Outten & Golden.
The ACLU notes that when someone wants to start a Facebook account, they have to identify their gender, and at first Facebook affords them only the options of male and female. They can change their gender option from a list of dozens once they’ve opened an account, but the original choice can allegedly still be served up to advertisers.
“The only difference between Facebook’s ad targeting practice and the sex-segregated classified ads of yore is that Facebook — unlike newspapers, which are distributed to the general public — can actually ensure that specific ads are only delivered to its male or female users, or to users of a specific age range, according to the advertisers’ selection,” the ACLU wrote in a statement.
The ACLU also called attention to Facebook’s “Lookalike Targeting” option for advertisers. According to a page in Facebook’s Advertising Help Center, advertisers can create a Lookalike Audience in which Facebook identifies “the common qualities of the people” in a selected custom audience. “Then we find people who are similar to (or ‘look like’) them,” Facebook states. It’s not hard to imagine how this type of tool could be used for more nefarious purposes. “To understand why this is problematic in the employment context, consider a company with an all-white workforce, which decided to recruit and hire only applicants that ‘look like’ their current workforce,” the ACLU states.
The charges filed Tuesday aim to prevent advertisers from having the tools and information needed to exclude women and non-binary individuals, as well as individuals in a higher age bracket, from having access to certain job opportunities. Aside from just making it more difficult for certain demographics to find these jobs, such tools can help maintain the homogeneity of already male-dominated fields, the ACLU argues.
This is hardly the first time Facebook has been accused of abetting discrimination on its ad platform. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed a discrimination complaint against the tech giant in August after ProPublica discovered two years prior that advertisers could exclude users based on race and disability. The social network pledged to fix the issue, only to be caught enabling discriminatory practices again through its targeted ads.
In response to its litany of screwups, Facebook announced in August that it was removing thousands “targeting options” in order to really, truly, for real this time, stop discrimination on its platform. According to the charges the ACLU filed on Tuesday, Facebook still has work to do.