back to article In a humiliating climbdown, Facebook agrees to follow US laws

Facebook will overhaul its ad system to prevent landlords, employers and money-lenders from bypassing anti-discrimination laws. The anti-social network announced Tuesday that it will not allow advertisers to access certain demographic details within its vast user datasets when advertising housing, credit or jobs. Those details …

  1. J. R. Hartley

    Bastards

    Facebook are utter UTTER bastards.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Bastards

      Now they're even bastards to those who've worked out the exact demographic to attract least ads and described themselves as that.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Bastards

      Utter bastards or udder bastards? Nunes' mom wants to know.

      1. Fungus Bob Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Bastards

        .That was a cow-ardly thing to say, AC.

        Have an upvote.

  2. Arty Effem

    Most Inconvenient.

    They'll just have to rely on filtering by letting agents now. In my experience far more reliable.

    1. Nick Kew

      Re: Most Inconvenient.

      Your experience? You mean you've tried both and are in a position to compare?

      My thought was, pick your demographic through where you advertise. For example, Grauniad vs Torygraph vs some trade rag.

  3. JohnFen Silver badge

    Laugh of the day

    "so long as everyone trusts Facebook to do what they say they will, and so long as the company introduces systems that work effectively, there will be no more problems"

    So more problems are guaranteed, then. That line about "so long as everyone trusts Facebook" made me laugh out loud. Thank you!

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Laugh of the day

      Sort of like "trusting politicians" or maybe lawyers then? I daresay the only one's who trust Facebook are the clueless.

      1. nematoad Silver badge

        Re: Laugh of the day

        " I daresay the only one's who trust Facebook are the clueless."

        In that I think you are right.

        Now "clueless" is often used in a pejorative manner to describe the utterances or actions of someone you dislike.

        In this case, however, a lot of people could be described as clueless because there was no way that they could find out how Facebook and its friends were slicing and dicing the personal data of their users for fun and profit.

        Ignorance in this case is most definitely not bliss, but Facebook's victims do have an excuse for not knowing.

        1. Robert Helpmann?? Silver badge
          Childcatcher

          Re: Laugh of the day

          In this case, however, a lot of people could be described as clueless because there was no way that they could find out how Facebook and its friends were slicing and dicing the personal data of their users for fun and profit.

          Other than the well established and well published history of the company getting up to similar shenanigans over its entire corporate life? Just knowing FB has access to all sorts of intimate details of their users, that they make much of their money from advertising (directly or indirectly) and that they have been caught out more than once abusing their market position is enough that a clueful person would be able to work out that FB should not be trusted on any level. You don't need to know the exact details of how they are doing wrong to know that are doing something wrong.

  4. doublelayer Silver badge

    I have a time machine

    I have recently perfected time travel techniques and used them to travel to one year from today. Sadly, the machine broke on the way back, but until I fix it, enjoy this article from next March:

    "We had every intention of following the laws. We should not be held accountable for a minor software glitch."

    That was part of the statement released today as embattled Facebook fielded a range of complaints from American activist organizations. The whole issue arose about eighteen months ago when lawsuits were filed against Facebook for allowing their advertising platforms to be used in ways that, extremely obviously, violated discrimination laws. Facebook was allowing businesses to limit their advertising by race, gender, and other protected characteristics. Most companies would be sued to within an inch of their lives, but Facebook vowed to do better, and changed their code.

    Unfortunately, their code had a few problems. They set up a separate ad portal for ads that were limited by characteristics, and removed those characteristics from the selection lists. This change to their systems required eight months of Facebook engineers' time to implement. A request for the ads using these characteristics during these eight months was submitted to the company, but no reply was received. An interested organization alleged that the change was a very minor procedure and could be completed quickly and argued that the company was intentionally delaying the process. Facebook agreed to pay ten thousand dollars in a settlement, that money being paid to some of its advertisers.

    Unfortunately for the business, their changes were not complete. Some advertisers continued to post their ads on the traditional ad platform which allows for discrimination. After some discoveries of this, those ads were removed briefly. In early February, some reports were received that a method of the API, a system allowing programs to use services, allowed the protected categories to be set even though they had been hidden on the main interface. Many advertisers were revealed to have discovered this flaw. Facebook claimed that this was "an amazing coincidence" and "possibly an act of collusion on the part of some of our advertising partners". When asked for a list of businesses using this loophole in order to press charges, the company responded "We take the privacy of our users very seriously. After an internal investigation, we will close the accounts of any user who uses our services to violate our terms of service or applicable laws".

    Facebook has announced that the flaw in their software is "one of our top priorities". A spokesperson for the company told us after lengthy discussion that "We have a team hard at work to patch this function. They estimate that it will be fixed some time in October unless there is a difficulty with amortizing the fixed functionality across our tier-1 cloud services systems". There has been some discussion in the American legislature that this issue in Facebook's systems might be a reason to start regulating the company. Given previous scandals, there may soon be a significant exodus of users from Facebook and significant penalties from American and international regulators.

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: I have a time machine

      I think you've just put more effort into writing that than FB will ever put into complying with the spirit of the law.

  5. veti Silver badge

    Dear Facebook,

    This isn't hard. Let users request what ads they want to see.

    If I want to search for a job as a dental receptionist in Walla Walla, or a short-term lease on a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago, then show me all the ads relevant to my query. ALL of them, regardless of any preferences expressed by the advertiser.

    1. Nick Kew

      Re: Dear Facebook,

      If you want to search, that'll be more google's province than facebook's.

      AIUI, this is not about what adverts the user can find, but what users an advertiser can target when those users aren't explicitly seeking them.

    2. Olivier2553 Silver badge

      Re: Dear Facebook,

      Even simpler: Let users request what ads they want to see.

      None!

      1. Pseu Donyme

        Re: None!

        Heresy! Sacrilege! To which I'd like to add: how about outlawing all advertising with which there is any change whatsoever that it could be seen by someone who had not specifically requested it. This would seem like a simple way of removing the incentive to snoop us at every turn and, on a more general level, pervert the internet and with it the wider economy with business models detrimental to the consumer (i.e. us plebs).

    3. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Dear Facebook,

      Interesting concept but as other suggest, in this case Google is your goto. I have to admit after listening to friends that FB isn't very good at targeting, period. One local realtor I know complained that his ads were seen all over the country instead of just his target (local) market. Understandable since he's getting billed for every ad shown.

      1. P. Lee Silver badge

        Re: Dear Facebook,

        I'm going to have to break from the consensus here.

        In the advertising context, race is a proxy for culture.

        Unless you think receiving particular FB adverts are a benefit to the receiving party, serving adverts based on race is not a particularly bad thing and the user is not the customer. Hey Turkeys, do you want to see adverts for Thanksgiving or adverts for Turkey food?

        What's with the TDS? Failure to advertise to all demographics is not the same as turning customers away based on skin colour. What's next, geographic quotas for billboard advertising?

        I'm sorry but you have to advertise your bacon to an equal number of Jews and Arabs as you do anglo-saxons or you'll fall foul of equality legislation.

        This is insane.

        1. Richard 12 Silver badge

          Re: Dear Facebook,

          There's a lot of advertising billboards on my way into work.

          Some of them are currently showing adverts for bacon, even though lots of jews, muslims, vegetarians and even vegans drive or take the bus past them.

          Heck, they even show adverts for Halal investments, vegan sausages and chocolate eggs, sometimes right next to each other!

          It's almost like it doesn't matter...

        2. don't you hate it when you lose your account Bronze badge

          not quite the point

          Traditional advertising was also targeted, but in the same way you can aim a shot gun over a sniper rifle. Mercedes would advertise in the Times, not the Holbeck Advertiser. What you have here is the extreme missus of personal data to actively break discrimination laws.

          1. Rich 11 Silver badge

            the extreme missus of personal data

            She sounds right scary.

        3. Rich 11 Silver badge

          Re: Dear Facebook,

          you have to advertise your bacon to an equal number of Jews and Arabs

          Not all Jews and Arabs eschew bacon.

          A bloke I used to work with attended mosque on Friday evenings, then straight after prayers joined us in the pub for a pint of Guinness or five.

        4. AK565

          Re: Dear Facebook,

          Ive a friend who's gay, Greek Orthodox, and bilingual. His FB page reflects all three. His 'targetted' ads consist mostly of offerings of 'real' moslem brides. Who benefits from this?

      2. Ben Liddicott

        Re: Dear Facebook,

        Nobody can do targeting. On holiday a couple of years ago, every time I checked out of a hotel I began to get ads for the hotel I just checked out of, in the city I just left.

        It's almost like they are bad at their jobs.

        Now let's get them to police hate speech. What could go wrong?

        1. Nick Kew

          Re: Dear Facebook,

          Hehe. I kept getting advertising for a particular furniture retailer, just after I'd bought a new sofa there. I expect the time before my next big-ticket furniture purchase will be measured in years.

          The point isn't whether they succeed, it's what they may be trying to do. Some of the zealots here have argued it's discrimination to advertise jobs in the Guardian or Telegraph, because (supposedly) fewer black than white people read them!

  6. bombastic bob Silver badge
    Unhappy

    What about shadow-bans and censoring conservative voices?

    It seems to me they're only "fixing" _PART_ of the problem...

    1. Adrian 4 Silver badge

      Re: What about shadow-bans and censoring conservative voices?

      If you knew the crap the 'conservative voices' are causing in this country, you wouldn't be censoring them. You'd be nuking them from orbit, even with your weird tolerance of the US loony extremists.

      1. BigSLitleP Silver badge

        Re: What about shadow-bans and censoring conservative voices?

        Well, no. You're normal person would nuke the conservatives from orbit but the problem is Bombastic Bob would be under the bomb.......

  7. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    Flame

    "prevent landlords, employers and money-lenders from bypassing anti-discrimination laws"

    And how is it that these types were permitted to bypass these laws in the first place ?

    Oh, silly me : because Facebook.

    So now we have another promise. I'll put that on the dung pile with all the others.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: "prevent landlords, employers and money-lenders from bypassing anti-discrimination laws"

      Because you can already do this in the real world. Run an ad for a job at labour party hq in the gruniad but not the Jewish chronicle and you are discriminating

      1. BebopWeBop Silver badge

        Re: "prevent landlords, employers and money-lenders from bypassing anti-discrimination laws"

        Why? There is no direct targeting and to use your example, the Grauniad will probably also be read by a number of jews who might also be sympathetic to the Labour party.

  8. LDS Silver badge
    Facepalm

    "when advertising housing, credit or jobs"

    Everything else open to discrimination.

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: "when advertising housing, credit or jobs"

      Well, yes. Where there are laws prohibiting discrimination, plaintiffs have grounds to take Facebook to court. Where there aren't, they don't.

      Freedom of expression broadly protects many types of discrimination. The political consensus in the US over the past couple of centuries is that's a reasonable compromise. We've tried to restrict expression to reduce discrimination only in particular areas that have especially harsh effects on people's lives - notably major financial domains.1

      In other words, if someone wants to advertise their new novel or handy gadget only to affluent white dudes, that's perfectly within the law in the US. I suspect it's not at the top of the list of concerns for historically discriminated-against populations, to be honest.

      Are there other categories where discriminatory advertising should be banned? Probably. But it's a trade-off between the civil rights of assholes - and it's important to protect everyone's rights - on the one hand, and the rights of the potential audience and associated state interest on the other.

      1It has also been argued that there's a compelling state interest in restricting expression in these limited areas because it helps reduce systemic inequality, and that in turn improves average quality of life and by improving opportunities makes it possible for society to realize more of the potential of discriminated populations. I'm sympathetic to that argument but it's tough to prove.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Please let us make profit for a few more months ..

    Facebook said the changes will require a major overhaul of its software. By the end of the year [..]

    I call BS. These guys runs scrums like most other organisations, also because this does not impact the front end data collection which will continue unabated. This "change" only impacts what happens behind the scenes with the stolen data (yes I said "stolen" because I still consider the way they convince users to part with data misleading, and that's putting it politely).

    All this delay is ensuring is that they can do a last call round of services to outfits who are up to no good as "the sale will end soon" - I'm betting they'll raise the price too for the duration. It's a naked ploy to squeeze a last round of profits out of their data mishandling.

    Filth.

  10. pie.slapper

    Facebook has ads? I don't see them anymore. Just lucky I guess.

    1. BebopWeBop Silver badge

      as do many people who just do not use it.

  11. Ben Liddicott

    But... but... they are a global company! They don't have to obey ANY laws!

    Fun fact: If you do business in more than one country you have to obey all their laws.

    * Doing business in Russia? Obey Russian law. No promoting equal rights for gays.

    * Doing business in Turkey? Obey Turkish law, no insulting Erdogan.

    * Doing business in China? Obey Chinese law. No mentioning Tianenmen square!

    * Doing business in Germany? Obey German law. No using the swastika, even to mock Nazis.

    * Doing business in England? Obey English law. No misgendering confused children!

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: But... but... they are a global company! They don't have to obey ANY laws!

      It appears to me that Facebook, and many other firms, which arguably "do business in more than one country" are in fact quite accomplished at obeying somewhat less than all the laws of any of them.

  12. Shadow Systems Silver badge

    You want to use targeted ads...

    ...and I want to use a targeted meteor strike on the roof of your HQ while an all hands C-level executive meeting is in progress.

    *Sigh*

    I really should stop fantasizing of using Total Extinction Events to solve my problems. =-J

    1. Teiwaz Silver badge

      Re: You want to use targeted ads...

      @Shadow Systems

      I really should stop fantasizing of using Total Extinction Events to solve my problems. =-J

      Teiwaz 3 Step program to fantasy pacifism.

      1. Cut down to merely carpet bombing or single (multiple if you are really exasperated) missile strike fantasies

      2. Reduce to Maimings or molotov fantasies after comfortable with 1

      3. Finally Baseball or cricket bat, or organising harassment by Jehovas Witness or Mormon.

      I still reserve the right to 'Tommy gun' any cheerful smarmy bands that set up impromptu unwelcome repetitive gigs in my head.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ideas for saving the world

    It would be nice to think they could just disappear. Failing that:

    Users being unable to share or comment on anything that appears on their newsfeed.

    News only pumped into fb from legitimates sources that have had information verified.

    No more fb live.

    Unable to post links without a strict code of behavior and identity verification for getting your collar felt.

    Any social media platforms over 5million participants broken up. Lots more competition.

    Billion dollar fines for any transgressions and jail time and shutdown/blocking

    Anyone starts a sentence with 'so' marched out the door with their box of tat.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: ideas for saving the world

      "News only pumped into fb from legitimates sources that have had information verified."

      Eh, so who are these mysterious news verifiers? And who decides what is considered a "legitimate" source?

      Other than that, this "fantasy" Facebook you describe sounds a lot like the Wall Street Journal website. Have you thought about taking out a subscription to that and foregoing Facebook?

  14. paulll

    "Even though the decision is unlikely to impact Facebook financially – businesses are unlikely to pull their ads just because they can't block black people or Latinos from seeing them"

    "despite the clear financial incentive the company has to do a poor job."

    Errr. So which are we going with?

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So if FB system had allowed illegal actions...

    ...then why was the action not taken by the police responsible for this? again if this actually occurred then the police need to obtain FB's records where obvious discrimination was used.

    If I was the police I would have all the records and charge FB to go through them, I am betting other lines were crossed and FB paying for you to find them is all for the good

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Age etc. make sense but "ZIP codes" sounds like an odd thing to prevent for advertising selection.

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