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Facebook ads have a problem. It’s called digital redlining.

Originally posted on mashable.

How legal are the ads on Facebook?

In 2021, a Facebook user filed a lawsuit because they didn’t think they were getting a fair shot at viewing advertisements. Wanting to see ads might seem absurd — if you’re anything like me, you want ads off your social media experience at all costs. Still, to a 55-year-old prospective tenant in the Washington, D.C. area, it was about more than a simple publicity blurb on Facebook. It, the plaintiff argued, had grave real-life consequences.

So Neuhtah Opiotennione filed a class-action lawsuit against nine companies that manage various apartment buildings in the D.C. area, alleging that they engaged in “digital housing discrimination” by excluding older people — like her — from viewing advertisements on Facebook. She alleges that because the defendants deliberately excluded people over the age of 50 from viewing their ads — something you could once do on Facebook — she was denied the opportunity to receive certain housing advertisements targeted to younger potential tenants.

“In creating a targeted Facebook advertisement, advertisers can determine who sees their advertisements based on such characteristics as age, gender, location, and preferences,” the lawsuit reads. The plaintiff alleged that rental companies used Facebook’s targeting function to exclude people like her because of her age, instead directing the ads to younger prospective tenants.

David Brody, counsel and senior fellow for privacy and technology at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which filed a brief in favor of the plaintiff, said in a press release that “Facebook is not giving the user what the user wants – Facebook is giving the user what it thinks a demographic stereotype wants. Redlining is discriminatory and unjust whether it takes place online or offline, and we must not allow corporations to blame technology for harmful decisions made by CEOs.”

The case was ultimately dismissed because the judge felt that online targeting of advertisements causes no injury to consumers. However, Ballard Spahr LLP, a law firm that focuses on litigation, securities and regulatory enforcement, business and finance, intellectual property, public finance, and real estate matters, said that the ruling could have a significant impact on how we view discrimination online.

“It seems likely to make it more difficult for private parties to attempt to bring lawsuits related to online ad targeting on social media networks or through methods like paid search,” the firm said. “But, secondarily, we wonder whether it will serve as a barrier to regulatory actions as well.”

Opiotennione v. Bozzuto Mgmt. is just one of many lawsuits against Facebook alleging discrimination. We already know how nefarious these ads can be, from spying on us to collecting our data and creating a world with further devastating partisan divides. But there’s something else harmful going on with ads online, particularly on one of the largest ad platforms ever, Facebook. According to Facebook‘s parent company, Meta, the platform has a total advertising audience of more than two billion people. Any one of them could be missing out on ads — for housing, credit opportunities, and other important issues that impact the wealth gap — due to digital redlining. Here’s why that’s important.

Wait, what is digital redlining?

Traditional redlining is when people and companies purposefully withhold loans and other resources from people who live in specific neighborhoods. This tends to land along racial and financial divides, and it works to deepen those divides. It can happen online, too.




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