Facebook enforcing new rules to prevent discrimination in advertising


Facebook has started enforcing new rules for advertisers in Canada meant to prohibit discrimination in ads for jobs, housing and credit services.

Under the new rules, advertisers no longer will be able to target such ads at individual Canadian Facebook users based on criteria such as age, gender or postal code. The move does not, however, prohibit targeting by those criteria for other kinds of ads.

Facebook has created a searchable ad library where users can see all of the ads that have been placed in those categories. On Tuesday, for example, the ad library had 620 ads listed for Montreal, 540 for Toronto and 410 for Vancouver.

In the past, users couldn’t see job ads that didn’t appear in their own Facebook feeds.

Kevin Chan, head of public policy for Facebook in Canada, said that while Facebook has long had a policy against discrimination in ads, it will be doing more to enforce it now.

“We’re doing this to ensure that everybody in Canada has access to housing, employment and credit opportunities — not just ones that an advertiser might want to narrowly reach,” he said. “There is risk there for discrimination and this new product change is designed to address that and remove that area of risk.”

Facebook Canada’s global director and head of public policy Kevin Chan says the company worked with the Canadian and Ontario human rights commissions to come up with the new system. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Chan said Facebook will use artificial intelligence to catch those who may try to flout the new rules. If someone posts an ad for a job, housing or credit service that discriminates, the system will suspend the ad.

If the system misses a discriminatory ad, users can report it, he said.

While the company is enforcing the new rules in Canada and the United States, Chan said it is not being introduced in other countries.

The new rules for Canada came after CBC News documented how some employers across Canada, including government departments, agencies and police forces, were micro-targeting job ads at specific age ranges.

While the texts of the ads themselves didn’t mention age, the settings that determine who would see the ads often excluded older workers. That meant, for example, that those over age 45 or 50 wouldn’t see an ad for a job for which they might be qualified in their Facebook feeds.

A smaller number of the ads CBC News identified were targeted specifically to women or men.

Under federal and provincial human rights laws in Canada, employers aren’t allowed to restrict who sees job ads based on age, gender, race or religion, unless the restriction is a bona fide occupational requirement or is part of a specific initiative like a student summer job program.

In the wake of the report by CBC News, the Canadian and Ontario human rights commissions got involved.

In a letter to Chan, posted on the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s website, Ontario Human Rights Chief Commissioner Ena Chadha and Canadian Human Rights Commission Chief Commissioner Marie-Claude Landry welcomed the news that the new restrictions are being enforced.

“Advertising is how many Canadians learn about critical opportunities, like a job opening or an apartment for rent,” they wrote. “Part of ensuring equal access to these opportunities is making sure everyone has a chance to learn about them in the first place.”

An applicant visits the employment insurance section of the Government of Canada website. Human rights commissioners say the pandemic’s dire effect on employment makes it more important than ever to eliminate discrimination from online job postings. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The commissioners said that’s even more important in the middle of a pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented numbers of people facing precarious housing, employment and financial circumstances — with the people in our communities who were already the most marginalized being disproportionately affected. Ensuring that available housing, employment and credit opportunities are advertised without discrimination and in line with human rights laws is imperative. The new safeguards that have been implemented and are now being enforced are an important part of achieving this.”

The commissioners said they will also be watching what Facebook does in future on the issue of potential algorithmic bias on its platform.

While Facebook’s new restrictions for advertisers resolves the question with the human rights commissions, the social media giant still faces the prospect of a class action lawsuit over ads run in the past that were targeted to particular age groups. Audrey Boctor, of Montreal law firm IMK, said a hearing on authorization of the class action is set for Jan. 15 in Quebec Superior Court.

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca



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