Back in March, Facebook announced that it would take stronger action against discriminatory ad targeting by removing a range of targeting options in certain business categories in order to stop businesses using its ad tools to limit audiences in an unfair manner.
Now, those changes are coming into effect, with The Social Network issuing a reminder for advertisers and developers to make changes to avoid future penalties.
As explained by Facebook:
"We’re committed to protecting people from discrimination on Facebook, and as part of this commitment, we announced changes earlier this year to all ads that offer housing, employment and credit opportunities. Advertisers, developers and partners must specify whether or not their ads fall under either the category of housing, employment or credit. They can do so by selecting a Special Ad Category, and once a category is selected in Ads Manager or via the Marketing API, a limited set of targeting options will then be available."
As noted, Facebook's changes relate to housing, employment and credit ads, each of which has been found to be have been used by some advertisers to exclude certain groups. For example, an investigation by ProPublica in 2016 found that Facebook’s system enabled advertisers to exclude black, Hispanic, and other “ethnic affinities” from seeing housing ads.
The changes to these ad categories began rolling out last month, while a new Special Ad Category field will be available in Facebook's Marketing API in September, enabling third-party ad tools to comply to the new process.
Facebook says that all developers which want to facilitate Facebook ad creation must implement the Special Ad Category restrictions by Dec. 4, 2019, or their ads may be paused for non-compliance.
"All advertisers and developers using the Marketing API must take action by Dec. 4, 2019 by including the Special Ad Category field in the campaign creation calls:
- Developers and advertisers that are located in the US or targeting users in the US and running ads with housing, employment and credit opportunities must specify their respective category.
- Developers and advertisers that are located in the US or targeting users in the US and whose ads do not fall under one of the categories must specify NONE or the campaign creation requests will fail.
- Developers and advertisers that are located outside the US whose ads target users outside of the US, regardless of the category, should specify NONE as well."
In addition to this, by the beginning of 2020, advertisers and developers will be required to modify any ongoing campaigns that began prior to Dec. 4 to comply with these new requirements.
The update makes a lot of sense, though its unlikely to eliminate all forms of discrimination within Facebook's ad targeting process, with experts suggesting that, via the system's algorithms, brands could end up serving ads, inadvertently, to biased audiences, even if that was not the intention.
That's a larger question about the inherent bias of the data sets we use for machine learning processes, while there would also, potentially, be ways to use Facebook's ad process to target questionable audience subsets in other categories.
But it is a positive step. If you run ads in these categories, or if you're a developer working with Facebook's Ads API, the time is now to take action.