As Facebook has grown, so too has its ability to slice and dice the habits of its hundreds of millions of users, and offer them up to advertisers that want to reach specific groups for specific reasons.
But while the social network has evolved to the point that it can target audiences as narrow as 18-to-24-year-old men in Connecticut who are in long-distance relationships, it has also created tools that allowed advertisers to discriminate against Americans in ways that were outlawed in the 1960s.
Facebook responded on Friday to concern that it was violating anti-discrimination laws, announcing that marketers placing housing, employment or credit ads on the social network would no longer be able to use tools that target people by ethnicity.
“There are many nondiscriminatory uses of our ethnic affinity solution in these areas, but we have decided that we can best guard against discrimination by suspending these types of ads,” Erin Egan, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, said in a blog post on Friday.
An article by ProPublica published last month reported that advertisers could use Facebook targeting to exclude certain races, or what the company calls “ethnic affinities,” from housing and employment ads, potentially putting the social network in violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The article prompted scrutiny from civil rights groups and policy makers, including the American Civil Liberties Union and four members of Congress, and a class-action lawsuit.
The decision casts a perhaps unwelcome spotlight on what Facebook calls its “ethnic affinity marketing solution,” which is still available for use outside the areas of housing, employment and credit advertising.
On Facebook’s ad-buying website, however, advertisers can choose to include or exclude certain demographic “affinities” from ads in the United States. For instance, they can exclude African-American, Asian-American and four “types” of Hispanic — bilingual, English-dominant, Spanish-dominant or all of the above. Facebook lists the number of people who match those affinities within its ads tool.
ProPublica, for its article last month, bought an ad targeting Facebook users who were house hunting, and excluded people with an “affinity” for African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic people. The publication showed the ad to a civil rights lawyer, who called it a “blatant” violation of the Fair Housing Act.
Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for the New York State attorney general, said its civil rights bureau “inquired about Facebook’s practices and, while we are still reviewing them, we are pleased to see this positive step by the company.”
Yvette D. Clarke, one of the members of Congress who called on Facebook to change its ad policy, commended the decision and took the opportunity to rap Silicon Valley’s knuckles for its lack of racial and gender diversity.
“To avoid these problems in the future, I urge Facebook and other technology companies to address the lack of diversity in the ranks of their leadership and staff by recruiting and retaining people of color and women,” Ms. Clarke said in a statement.
Facebook also faces criticism for the role it may have played in the election of Donald J. Trump, with critics assailing the amount of “fake news” that showed up in users’ news feeds. The company came under fire this year for faults in its Trending Topics feature, which surfaced some of the most talked-about stories and topics circulating on Facebook. Users discovered that Trending Topics, among many other areas of the site, was a source for the spread of fake news from disreputable websites. Separately on Friday, the company accidentally placed notices on the profile pages of many users indicating that they were dead.