Businesses have been posting job ads on Facebook that illegally discriminate against women and elderly workers.
That’s what the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission decided in a landmark judgment involving complaints against seven companies: Capital One, Edward Jones, Nebraska Furniture Mart, Enterprise Holdings, Renewal by Andersen, Drive Time Auto, and Sandhills Publishing.
Facebook users filed discrimination complaints last year against 66 employers, including Facebook, accusing them of posting job ads on the social network that only men and younger workers could see. Most of those cases are still pending, and the new decision suggests workers may prevail in all of them, eventually leading to settlements.
“This historic decision shows that our civil rights laws apply to digital advertising and recruiting. It underscores that the internet is not a civil rights-free zone,” Peter Romer-Friedman, one of the lawyers representing workers in the seven cases, said in a statement to Vox. The EEOC decision was made in July, but it wasn’t made public until Wednesday.
The businesses had bought ads on Facebook to publicize job openings, but targeted them to young men, so women or people over the age of 55 who use the platform couldn’t see them. The jobs included positions for truck drivers and window installers.
The companies had argued that they’re allowed to target certain demographic groups, as long as their overall recruitment strategy doesn’t exclude protected groups. The EEOC disagreed. The agency, which enforces civil rights laws at work, said the job ads were a violation of the Civil Rights Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
It’s the first major decision involving discrimination on digital platforms.
The complaints focus on a central feature to Facebook’s unique business model — letting advertisers micro-target the network’s users based on their interests, city, age, and other demographic information.
While it’s generally not against the law for businesses to advertise services to people of a certain race or age, it can be illegal in certain contexts. For example, ad campaigns related to housing, real estate, financial services, and job opportunities cannot exclude black and Latino people.
The recent EEOC decision suggests that targeting digital job ads based on gender and age is also illegal. Under federal law, workers and job seekers must first file discrimination complaints with the EEOC before they can sue in federal court.
In recent years, civil rights advocates have sued Facebook for accepting ads that discriminate against consumers based on their religion, race, and gender. The tech company is also accused of age discrimination in a class-action lawsuit filed in May 2018 by older Facebook users who were looking for jobs.
Facebook has argued that the company is not legally responsible when other companies buy ads that violate the law. Its lawyers cited the Communications Decency Act, a federal law that protects internet companies from liability for content created by third parties. But user groups argue that Facebook ads are not third-party content because the company developed the micro-targeting ad technology.
In the complaint filed in September 2018, lawyers showed how the company’s ad-building tool let businesses exclude women from seeing job posts. A Facebook disclosure for a job ad posted earlier this year by a furniture store in Texas said the business was trying to reach men between 18 and 50 years old near the city of Fort Worth to assemble furniture, according to the New York Times.
Lawyers collected similar job ads posted on Facebook between October 2017 and August 2018, and they filed the complaint on behalf of all women Facebook users who were looking for jobs at the time.
The social media network first came under scrutiny for civil rights abuses in 2016, when a ProPublica investigation found that companies could buy ads that screened out users based on their race, which is potentially illegal in the context of housing and employment advertising.
Facebook announced in February 2017 that it had developed a new system to flag and reject certain ads that screened users based on “ethnic affinity,” but the network continued to let advertisers filter out characteristics linked to other protected groups: women, people with disabilities, and religious minorities.
That triggered lawsuits from groups such as the National Fair Housing Alliance, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Communication Workers of America, a labor union representing 700,000 media workers across the country.
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