Facebook settles CWA, ACLU lawsuit on bias vs. women, minorities
Facebook screenshot/AP

WASHINGTON—Under pressure from a huge lawsuit by the Communications Workers, the ACLU and the National Fair Housing Alliance, Facebook will change its advertising programming and system to prevent landlords, lenders and – most importantly – job advertisers from using its platform to discriminate on the basis gender, age and zip codes, which were a stand-in for race. The settlement solves the court suit.

But the saga of such social media discrimination isn’t over yet, CWA adds. Its case against 70 employers who used Facebook to discriminate by age – specifically barring older women from seeing the ads — is still going before the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), which enforces civil rights laws. Those firms include Amazon, T-Mobile and Cox Communications.

“Our campaign” against Facebook and the advertisers “seeks justice for workers who have been unfairly locked out of opportunities by employers who deny their ads to older workers or women,” said CWA Secretary-Treasurer and News Guild member Sara Steffens. “All workers deserve a fair chance to get a good job.”

Facebook’s paid ad platform, where it makes its money, had programming that let advertisers exclude people from receiving job, housing, or credit ads based on sex, race (by zip code) or gender. Federal civil rights laws outlaw such discrimination.

The programming let employment advertisers target ads to younger workers and white men while excluding others from even seeing the ads. There was similar discrimination in housing and credit ads.

The key change is Facebook will now create a separate ad portal for those categories “with a much more limited set of targeting options so advertisers cannot target ads based on Facebook users’ age, gender, race, or categories associated with membership in protected groups, or based on zip code or a geographic area that is less than a 15-mile radius, and cannot consider users’ age, gender, or zip code when creating ‘Lookalike’ audiences for advertisers,” CWA said.

Facebook will also institute both automated and human review of ads to catch instances of bias and require advertisers “to certify compliance with anti-discrimination laws.” It will study “the potential for unintended biases” in its internal algorithms, and it will have both CWA and the ACLU watching over its shoulder. The groups and their lawyers will meet with Facebook every six months for the next three years to monitor its performance.

Facebook will pay CWA $3 million. The money will be split between judgments for the workers harmed by the discrimination and its lawyers’ fees.

“As the Internet — and platforms like Facebook — play an increasing role in connecting us all to information related to economic opportunities, it’s crucial that micro-targeting not be used to exclude groups that already face discrimination,” said ACLU senior attorney Galen Sherwin. After lauding Facebook’s settlement, he added, “we expect other tech companies to follow Facebook’s lead.”

“Equal rights must be the guiding principle for online advertising and recruiting,” Peter Romer-Friedman, a civil rights attorney at Outten & Golden, the San Francisco-based pro-worker firm CWA hired. “This settlement takes away digital tools advertisers use to deny equal opportunity. We will continue our efforts to hold employers accountable for using Facebook’s platform to discriminate.”

In one example of that discrimination, a paragraph in the second suit, cited by a communications industry newsletter, reads: “T-Mobile recently sent the following ad via Facebook to recruit prospective job applicants for its stores nationwide, and in doing so, upon information and belief, limited the population receiving the ad to 18- to 38-year-olds. The screenshot to the right shows that T-Mobile sent the job ad because T-Mobile ‘wants to reach people ages 18 to 38 who live or were recently in the United States.’” The EEOC is still handling that case.

This Facebook suit started last September when three woman workers tried to get jobs using Facebook – and were frozen out of even seeing the ads by the advertisers’ discrimination on Facebook’s platforms.

Bobbi Spees, of Pennsylvania, Linda Bradley, laid off from a call center in Franklin County, Ohio, and Renia Hudson, who moved from Northern California to Chicago when she couldn’t find work, told the union and the ACLU that employers targeted some or all Facebook ads only to men and only to younger workers.

They wanted jobs in male-dominated fields such as construction, trucking, and software, but Facebook’s system filtered them out of those job ads. CWA jumped into the case because, in 2017, it sued Facebook in California over those same filters. It said Facebook’s filters barred older workers from seeking jobs.

“Our members have been on the frontlines ensuring that women have opportunities to apply to and be hired for any job they’re qualified to do,” Steffens, the union’s highest-ranking female officer, said then. “Despite the progress we have made, stereotypes and biases clearly still influence corporate hiring strategies. Shame on these employers for targeting ads based on gender, and shame on Facebook for facilitating this practice.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).