Facebook named in suit alleging job ads on its platform unlawfully discriminated against women

Facebook’s ad platform is facing charges that it has enabled gender-based discrimination against millions of women in a class action suit filed on behalf of three female workers and backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The legal action also names ten employers who are alleged to have used the social media giant’s platform […]

Facebook’s ad platform is facing charges that it has enabled gender-based discrimination against millions of women in a class action suit filed on behalf of three female workers and backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The legal action also names ten employers who are alleged to have used the social media giant’s platform to exclusively and unlawfully target job adverts at male Facebook users, thereby excluding women and non-binary users from receiving the ads.

The ACLU, law firm Outten & Golden LLP, and the Communications Workers of America have filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The 10 employers and employment agency advertisers named in the suit, which the charges allege ran discriminatory jobs in “mostly” male-dominated fields, include a police department, multiple retailers, a software development firm and various installation, repair and remodelling companies. (All ten named in the suit are listed in the ACLU’s press release.)

“I’ve heard stories about when people looked for jobs in the classified ads and big bold letters read ‘help wanted-male’ or ‘help wanted-female.’ I was shocked to find that this discrimination is still happening, just online instead of in newspapers,” said Bobbi Spees, a job-seeker and lead complainant in the case, commenting in a statement.  “I shouldn’t be shut out of the chance to hear about a job opportunity just because I am a woman.”

“The internet did not erase our civil rights laws.  It violates the law if an employer uses Facebook to deny job ads to women,” added Peter Romer-Friedman, an attorney at Outten & Golden, in another supporting statement. “The last time I checked, you don’t have to be a man to be a truck driver or a police officer.  But Facebook and employers are acting like it’s the 1950s, before federal employment law banned sex discrimination.”

The charges allege that Facebook, via its platform, delivers job ads selectively based on age and sex categories that employers expressly choose, and that it earns revenue from placing job ads that exclude women and older workers from receiving the ads.

The ACLU notes that targeting job ads by sex is unlawful under federal, state, and local civil rights laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Sex segregated job advertising has historically been used to shut women out of well-paying jobs and economic opportunities,” said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, in another supporting statement. “We can’t let gender-based ad targeting online give new life to a form of discrimination that should have been eradicated long ago.”

While online platforms are not as heavily regulated as publishing platforms the lawsuit argues that Facebook can be held legally responsible for:

  1. creating and operating the system that allows and encourages employers to select the gender and age of the people who get their job ads, including providing employers with data on users’ gender and age for targeting purposes;
  2. delivering the gender- and age-based ads based on employers’ preferences; and
  3. acting as a recruiter connecting employers with prospective employees

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment on the lawsuit.

It’s by no means the first time the company has faced civil rights complaints related to its ad platform.

Back in 2016 ProPublica exposed how Facebook’s ad tools could be used to exclude users based on their “ethnic affinity” — including in protected categories such as housing, employment and credit opportunities which prohibit discriminatory advertising.

The company responded by saying it would build tools to prevent advertisers from applying ethnic affinity targeting in the protected categories. And also by rewording its ad policies to more clearly prohibit discrimination.

But the following year another ProPublica investigation showed it was still failing to block discriminatory ads — leaving Facebook to apologize for failing to effectively enforce its own policies (hmmm, now where else have we heard the company accused of that… ), and saying: “Our systems continue to improve but we can do better.”

Last year the company was also shown to have allowed ads that included hateful sentiments targeted at Jewish people.

Around about the same time that Facebook was facing renewed criticism over ethnic affinity targeting on its platform being used as a tool for racial discrimination, the company said it would also take a look at how advertisers are using exclusion targeting across other “sensitive segments” — such as those relating to members of the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities.

It’s not clear whether Facebook included gender-based discrimination in those 2017 self reviews too. (We’ve asked and will update this post with any response.)

Either way, it appears Facebook has failed to pick up on the potential for gender-based discrimination to be carried out via its ad platform.

And given all the attention its ad tools have attracted lately as a vector for discrimination and other types of abuse that looks careless to say the least.

Facebook’s ad platform has faced additional criticism in Europe for sensitive inferences it makes about users — given the platform allows advertisers to target people based on political and religious interests, meaning Facebook’s platform is quietly making sensitive inferences about individuals.

Privacy experts argue this modus operandi entails Facebook processing the sensitive personal data of individuals without explicitly asking people for their upfront consent (as would be required under EU law when you’re processing sensitive personal data such as political or religious affiliation).

An opinion on a person is still personal data of that person, they contend.

Facebook disagrees, disputing that the inferences its ad platform makes about users (based off of its tracking and data-mining of people) constitutes personal data. But it’s yet another bone of legal contention now being lobbed at the company.

Congress members demand answers from Amazon about facial recognition software

When we called the ACLU’s Amazon’s Rekognition press release an “attention-grabbing stunt” when we wrote about it earlier today, well, consider that attention grabbed. Several Democratic members of Congress have responded with a strongly worded letter to founder Jeff Bezos. Reps. Jimmy Gomez and John Lewis issued a letter to Bezos, after the ACLU noted that […]

When we called the ACLU’s Amazon’s Rekognition press release an “attention-grabbing stunt” when we wrote about it earlier today, well, consider that attention grabbed. Several Democratic members of Congress have responded with a strongly worded letter to founder Jeff Bezos.

Reps. Jimmy Gomez and John Lewis issued a letter to Bezos, after the ACLU noted that the facial recognition software falsely associated 28 images of Congress members with mugshots in a criminal database. Lewis, a pivotal figure in America’s civil rights moment, was among those falsely matched in the ACLU’s testing — particularly notable as the testing appeared to have a particular bias against people of color.

“The results of the ACLU’s test of Amazon’s ‘Rekognition’ software are deeply troubling,” Lewis wrote in a statement. “As a society, we need technology to help resolve human problems, not to add to the mountain of injustices presently facing people of color in this country. Black and brown people are already unjustly targeted through a discriminatory sentencing system that has led to mass incarceration and devastated millions of families.”

A trio of Congress members (Sen. Ed Markey and Reps. Luis Gutiérrez and Mark DeSaulnier), meanwhile, wrote a letter addressed to Bezos with a series of questions about the technology:

While facial recognition services might provide a valuable law enforcement tool, the efficacy and impact of the technology are not yet fully understood. In particular, serious concerns have been raised about the dangers facial recognition can pose to privacy and civil rights, especially when it is used as a tool of government surveillance, as well as the accuracy of the technology and its disproportionate impact on communities of color.

Amazon for its part, both defended Rekognition and disputed the ACLU’s methods. “We remain excited about how image and video analysis can be a driver for good in the world, including in the public sector and law enforcement,” the company wrote in a statement provided to TechCrunch.

With regard to testing, it says:

[W]e think that the results could probably be improved by following best practices around setting the confidence thresholds (this is the percentage likelihood that Rekognition found a match) used in the test. While 80% confidence is an acceptable threshold for photos of hot dogs, chairs, animals, or other social media use cases, it wouldn’t be appropriate for identifying individuals with a reasonable level of certainty. When using facial recognition for law enforcement activities, we guide customers to set a threshold of at least 95% or higher.

The company also reiterated an earlier statement that the results are intended to be used to narrow down results, rather than lead directly to arrests.

Regardless, the ACLU’s stunt certainly got the attention the organization was seeking, both with regard to the aforementioned biases and broader security implications of facial scanning for law enforcement.

ACLU says Amazon facial recognition associated Congress members with mugshots

As far as attention-grabbing stunts go, this is a pretty good one. The ACLU has been attempting to raise awareness of Amazon’s Rekognition software for some time, stating that it “raises profound civil liberties and civil rights concerns.” For its part, Amazon has brushed these off, telling TechCrunch back in May, “As a technology, Amazon […]

As far as attention-grabbing stunts go, this is a pretty good one. The ACLU has been attempting to raise awareness of Amazon’s Rekognition software for some time, stating that it “raises profound civil liberties and civil rights concerns.”

For its part, Amazon has brushed these off, telling TechCrunch back in May, “As a technology, Amazon Rekognition has many useful applications in the real world.” In a bid to get Congress to sit up and take notice, however, the ACLU says it used Rekognition to scan images of every current member of Congress.

The ACLU claims the software falsely matched 28 members of Congress with arrest mugshots. “The members of Congress who were falsely matched with the mugshot database we used in the test include Republicans and Democrats, men and women, and legislators of all ages, from all across the country,” the organization writes in a statement.

Those tagged, however, “were disproportionately of people of color, including six members of the Congressional Black Caucus, among them civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis,” it adds.

Amazon has, naturally, rejected the findings. The company noted that such technologies are used to narrow down results, rather than make arrests. “We remain excited about how image and video analysis can be a driver for good in the world,” it said in a statement.

That the service appears to have an outsized target on people of color, however, does add fuel to the ACLU’s existing privacy complaints. Earlier this month, Microsoft president Bradford L. Smith called for additional regulation for these technologies as they continue to become more of a mainstay for law enforcement.

“Facial recognition technology raises issues that go to the heart of fundamental human rights protections like privacy and freedom of expression,” Smith wrote. “These issues heighten responsibility for tech companies that create these products. In our view, they also call for thoughtful government regulation and for the development of norms around acceptable uses.”