Public interest publisher ProPublica has once again accused Facebook of misbehaviour, but this time Mark Zuckerberg's ad-farm is pushing back.
ProPublica previously rattled The Social Network by demonstrating how advertisers were targeting “Jew-haters” in their Facebook ad profiling.
That led to a rare bout of Zuckerbergian soul-searching, but precious little self-awareness. As we wrote at the time, ignorance followed by contrition is part of the fundamental coin of Facebook and Google.
ProPublica's joint investigation with The New York Times turned up instances where Verizon, Amazon, Goldman Sachs, Target, and Facebook placed recruitment ads “limited to particular age groups”, and wrote that “using the system to expose job opportunities only to certain age groups has raised concerns about fairness to older workers”.
The Communications Workers of America union agreed: it filed a federal court class action lawsuit (PDF) in San Francisco claiming age discrimination on Wednesday.
In its response, Facebook defended its own age-targeted recruitment advertisements as part of “broader-based recruitment efforts designed to reach all ages and all backgrounds”. It added:
“We completely reject the allegation that these advertisements are discriminatory.”
As far as other recruiters are concerned, Facebook acknowledged that American law forbids age discrimination in employment (as well as race, gender and so on), but said, “What matters is that marketing is broadly based and inclusive, not simply focused on a particular age group.”
“We’ve also begun requiring businesses that show employment ads on Facebook to certify that they comply with the law before we show their ads”, Zuck's lot added.
As lawyers speaking to ProPublica stated, while the law is clear that age discrimination is illegal, liability is a grey area. Tech companies like to describe themselves as passive vessels for others' publishing decisions, to stay within reach of "safe harbour" defences.
However, getting businesses to explicitly certify that they're obeying the law hints that Facebook wants to make sure wherever liability lands, it's not in Menlo Park.
Some employers, ProPublica reported, responded by removing age-targeting from recruitment advertisements. These included Amazon, Northwestern Mutual, and the New York City Department of Education.
Facebook wasn't the only platform found with age-targeting: Google and LinkedIn were also pinged in the investigation. LinkedIn changed its system to exclude age, Google did not. ®