Facebook’s Anti-Bias Vows May Not Kill Suit Against Advertisers

By Josh Eidelson | April 18, 2019

Facebook’s vow to block ads on its platform from being programmed to discriminate based on demographics ended a string of lawsuits against the social network, but companies that allegedly used the site to weed out older applicants for jobs aren’t off the hook yet.

Amazon.com Inc. and T-Mobile US Inc. were named as defendants in a 2017 lawsuit by the Communications Workers of America among hundreds of companies nationwide that the union claims have systematically deployed Facebook’s algorithms to exclude job seekers over 40.

The corporate advertisers urged a federal judge to throw out the lawsuit after Facebook last month announced what it called a historic settlement that will no longer allow housing, employment or credit ads to be targeted to particular users by age, gender or zip codes.

The judge said at a hearing Wednesday in San Jose, California, that it’s peculiar the union didn’t name Facebook as a defendant and questioned whether the dispute even belongs in her court given that the companies which are targeted aren’t local. She also suggested the union might address that flaw by adding a Northern California-based job seeker as a plaintiff.

“These are very difficult issues, this is a very important case,” U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman said at the close of the hearing.

Freeman said she was “not as persuaded” by arguments from attorneys for Amazon and T-Mobile that the union lacked standing to bring the case at all — even if Northern California is the wrong place to proceed. At the same time, the judge voiced doubt about whether the case can go forward as a class action against hundreds of employers and employment agencies that used age-targeted Facebook ads.

“I don’t see any link among the vast group,” she said.

In announcing last month’s settlement, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said the changes the company is making are “an important step in our broader effort to prevent discrimination and promote fairness and inclusion on Facebook.” Separately, the top Democrat and Republican members of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging had sought information from Facebook on how much age-specific job advertising is displayed on its platform.

Freeman said that regardless of the settlement Facebook reached, the company may have to take its lumps in the union’s separate suit against advertisers.

“Just because they settled doesn’t mean that you can’t throw tomatoes at them,” she said.

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