Facebook will be legally required to end its practice of allowing businesses to block certain groups like blacks, gays and immigrants from viewing ads under an agreement reached with the Washington State Attorney General's Office.
The Attorney General's Office said Tuesday it had launched an investigation into the social-media giant and successfully bought 20 fake Facebook ads that excluded various ethnic minorities in late 2016. The ads, all approved by Facebook, were in some cases blatantly racist: One housing ad contained a headline specifically stating that people of certain ethnicities need not apply; another was looking for a white tenant.
On Tuesday, under pressure from the investigation, Facebook signed a legally binding document in court in Seattle requiring it to shut down the advertising tool for businesses looking to exclude demographics protected under state law.
The practice, first unveiled in a series of ProPublica articles that sparked the attorney general's investigation, is one of several issues facing Facebook's lucrative advertising network, which allows anyone from presidential candidates to the local flower-shop owner to micro-target its billions of users.
When advertisers launch a campaign, Facebook offers a drop-down menu where they can select what types of people won't see their ads, which it calls "exclusion marketing." A landlord could advertise an open apartment and make sure black Facebook users couldn't see it, for instance -- an apparent violation of fair-housing laws.
The Attorney General's Office noted that this type of misuse did occur on occasion with real-world advertisers, though it did not cite any examples.