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Facebook sued over gender and age discrimination

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A class-action lawsuit has been filed in San Francisco federal court, accusing Facebook of discriminating against older people and women by allowing financial services adverts to be targeted at prospective customers by traits including age and gender.

In March, Facebook was charged with redlining by the federal government; discriminating against groups based on where they live (closely associated with ethnic divisions). The charges were brought against Facebook following a ProPublica investigation, which found that Facebook’s ‘ethnic affinities’ tool could be used to exclude Black and Latino users from being shown certain ads. If these ads relate to housing opportunities, this would violate the federal Fair Housing Act. At the time, Facebook – the world’s second-largest player in online advertising – had no tools in place to prevent blatantly racist ad targeting.

During an appearance before Congress last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was repeatedly questioned about Facebook’s part in the redlining scandal: one of a number of serious issues he appeared unprepared to answer.

Now, Facebook faces a similar scandal, this time with regards to sexism and ageism in ad targeting. A lawsuit has been filed accusing the social media company of discrimination against older users and women by allowing advertising for financial services (including bank accounts, investments, loans and insurance) to be restricted according to age and gender.

The plaintiff is Neutah Opiotennione, a Washington DC resident, who claims that Facebook has hidden some financial services ads and information from her on account of her age (54) and gender (female).

Seven months ago, Facebook was forced by civil rights groups to take steps to address some of its issues around discriminatory ad targeting (relating to housing, job and credit ads). However, the new lawsuit alleges that it continues to allow financial services companies to target by age and gender in an alleged violation of Californian civil rights law. Depending on whether judges agree to grant the case class-action status (as requested) and the scale of the discriminatory advertising, this could result in billions of dollars in compensation at $4,000 in damages per violation.

“Women and older persons are entitled to full and equal services of businesses such as Facebook and the financial services companies that advertise on Facebook’s platform. Purposeful targeting of advertisements away from these members of our community unlawfully denies them these guarantees,” said Matthew Handley, an attorney representing the plaintiff, in a statement.

“The internet is not a place where you can discriminate against people because of their age or gender, particularly in financial services opportunities,” Peter Romer-Friedman, who is representing the plaintiffs, told Reuters. “It would be like General Motors refusing to offer women or older people the same features on a car as men or younger people.”

He acknowledged that Facebook had taken “significant steps” to prevent discrimination in the targeting of other types of ads, although the company had more work to do.

Facebook told Reuters that: “Our policies have long prohibited discrimination and we’re proud of the strides we’re making in this area.”

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