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Facebook Faces Civil Rights Lawsuit: Users Suing Over Housing, Employment Discrimination

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Facebook just became a defendant in a case filed by three of its users who claim that the world's largest social media network pursues a number of racially discriminatory policies.

In what could turn out to be a class-action lawsuit, Suzanne-Juliette Mobley, Karen Savage and Victor Onuoha, alleged that Facebook violated the U.S. Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status and national origin. The case was filed before the District Court of the Northern District of California.

Discrimination In Facebook Ads

The complaint stemmed from the company's ad platform, which is said to publish discriminatory advertisements due to its capacity to target and exclude specific ethnic groups. This points to the advertising process wherein an ad buyer is presented with a list of peoples classified according to their ethnic affinity such as African Americans, Asian Americans and immigrants. The lawsuit alleges that it discriminates against those who are looking for housing and employment.

Once a group or groups of particular "affinity" has been selected, the ad buyer clicks a button that reads "Exclude People." The resulting ad propagated within the social network will no longer show in the timelines of users who matched the characteristics of the excluded grouping.

Claims Of Exclusion

The complainants have detailed unique experiences about Facebook's advertisements. Savage, for example, who is a student and divorced mother of four, has used Facebook advertisements to look for an apartment. Based on the lawsuit's claim, she must have been unfairly disadvantaged during the process, as Facebook also included the "divorced," "parents" and "expectant parents" in the exclusion options.

The ad platform could also entail LGBT discrimination as sex is included in the "Exclude People" options. Facebook has already faced a discrimination lawsuit based on gender last year.

Facebook: Not Discrimination But Multicultural Marketing

"The lawsuit is utterly without merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously," a Facebook spokesperson told Ars Technica. "Our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law."

Facebook has also commented on the issue in an earlier Facebook post by Christian Martinez, head of Facebook's multicultural marketing, who argued that rather than exclusion, the ad platform is a validation of the company's respect for diversity and equality due to its ability to empower advertisers to reach specific ethnic communities.

"This is a process known in the ad industry as "exclusion targeting," Martinez said. "This prevents audiences for community-specific ads from seeing a generic ad targeted to a large group and helps avoid the offensive outcome that traditional advertising can often create for people in the minority."

If the case prospers, it could cover all Facebook users who have not seen any employment or housing advertisements in the past two years due to the ad exclusions. The lawsuit claims that it is not seeking to get rid of the "Exclude People" mechanism but to end the illegal use of the ad feature.

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