Facebook's targeted ads practices are raising some uncomfortable concerns, as the company allows advertisers to discriminate by race.
More specifically, advertisers can choose to eliminate entire races, excluding specific groups called "Ethnic Affilities."
"Imagine if, during the Jim Crow era, a newspaper offered advertisers the option of placing ads only in copies that went to white readers," reports ProPublica, the investigative journalism publication that first signaled this alarming Facebook practice.
Targeted advertising sounds like a good idea if we're talking about targeting specific users based on their interests, for instance, but excluding entire races amounts to discrimination and it's unsettling at the very least, if not downright illegal.
"Ads that exclude people based on race, gender and other sensitive factors are prohibited by federal law in housing and employment," ProPublica further points out.
To prove its point, the publication goes one step further and successfully buys an ad via the Facebook ad portal. ProPublica easily customizes its target audience by excluding black, Hispanic and Asian users, which means that its ad will not be available for these races.
Considering that Facebook largely depends on advertising to monetize its business, allowing advertisers to serve targeted ads with a high degree of specificity makes sense. Enabling advertisers to discriminate by race, however, crosses a different line.
In its defense, Facebook explains to ProPublica that it's always alert and ready to prevent abuse or discrimination on its ad platform, but exclusion is plays a big role in the way in which advertisers can test how effective their ads are.
In a separate statement to Fortune, The Outcast Agency, which handles Facebook's public relations, defends the company's ad practice by arguing that offering exclusion options is an important way of ensuring that ads can be customized for a specific audience. If problematic ads occur, the company doesn't hesitate to take action.
However, no measures were taken against the ad that ProPublica placed, which targeted home buyers and renters and excluded Asian, Hispanic and African American people. This means that these people don't get the same chance as others, simply because of their race. The ad was for an event on illegal real estate practices and how to fight illegally high rates, so why would those races be excluded? Would Asians not be interested in learning how to fight rent injustice? Would Hispanics not mind having an illegally high rent? Would African Americans not want to know about illegal real estate practices? Maybe they would, but they're not invited.
Facebook's explanation and the usefulness of specificity in targeted ads applies up to a point, but there seems to be a thin line between specificity and discrimination with Facebook targeted ads.