An interesting thing happened when nonprofit journalism website ProPublica attempted to purchase an ad on Facebook: The site offered the option to prevent the advertisement from appearing in the feeds of people who fall under the “ethnic affinity” of African American, Asian American or Hispanic.

Courtesy of ProPublica

In an article published on Friday (October 28), the site presented screenshots that show that Facebook’s advertising portal let a ProPublica representative create an ad for a housing forum that would directly violate statutes designed to prevent discrimination. From ProPublica:

When we showed Facebook’s racial exclusion options to a prominent civil rights lawyer John Relman, he gasped and said, “This is horrifying. This is massively illegal. This is about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find.”

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 makes it illegal “to make, print or publish, or cause to be made, printed or published any notice, statement or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin.” Violators can face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

Facebook’s privacy and public policy manager, Steve Satterfield, told ProPublica that the site takes “a strong stand against advertisers misusing our platform” and that the tool is meant to let advertisers run tests for individual markets:

For instance, he said, an advertiser “might run one campaign in English that excludes the Hispanic affinity group to see how well the campaign performs against running that ad campaign in Spanish. This is a common practice in the industry.”

Satterfield also said that the “ethnic affinity” categories have been in place for two years as part of a “multicultural advertising” effort, and that the term is not synonymous with race. He says that the site doesn’t ask users for their race, but instead assigns them an affinity based on what they engage with on the site. Propublica asked why, then, the category is included under the heading “Demographics” and the social media site said it plans to move it. As of press time, it was still there (see screenshots below). Also under demographics: The ability to exclude parents, people of various ages, bisexual people, and those who lean left or right when it comes to politics.

ProPublica’s report goes on to compare Facebook’s targeting practices with those of The New York Times, which uses both technology and human eyes to screen potential ads for discrimination. Read the full article here.

Colorlines screenshot of Facebook's advertising portal

Colorlines screenshot of Facebook's advertising portal

Colorlines screenshot of Facebook's advertising portal