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Rachel Goodman: Facebook targeting threatens civil liberties

It’s heartening to see, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, growing skepticism about how Facebook handles data and data privacy.

But we should take this opportunity to ask the bigger, harder questions, too — questions about consumer discrimination and division. We should ask ourselves whether we want to live in a society where our data profile determines our reality.

In the spring of 2016, a Facebook executive gave a presentation about the success of Facebook’s then-new “ethnic affinity” advertising categories.

Facebook had grouped users as white, black or Latino, based on what they had clicked. This allowed producers of the movie “Straight Outta Compton” to effectively market it as two completely different films.

For black audiences, it was a deeply political biopic about the gangsta rap pioneers of the N.W.A., framed by contemporary reflections from rappers Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. For white audiences, it was a scripted drama about gangsters, guns and cops that barely mentioned the names of its real-life characters.

From the perspective of Universal Pictures, this dual marketing proved wildly successful. “Straight Outta Compton” earned more than $160 million at the U.S. box office.

When we saw this news in 2016, it immediately set off alarm bells. We worried about the effect such categorization could have on civil rights.

Guest Writer

Rachel Goodman is a staff atttorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. She holds degrees from Yale University and the New York University School of Law, where she graduated magna cum laude. Before joining the ACLU, she clerked for Justice Joseph Greenaway of Third U.S. Court of Appeals. She has litigated discrimination in the housing, lending and airline industries, particularly racial discrimination.

We went directly to Facebook with our concern: How was the company ensuring that ads for jobs, housing and employment weren’t also being targeted by race, which is illegal under civil rights law? Facebook didn’t have an answer.

We worked with officials from the company for more than a year on solutions that, as it turned out, were never properly implemented. Facebook still makes it possible for advertisers to target based on categories closely linked to gender, family status and disability, and that has landed the social media giant in court.

To make matters worse, the government seems to be actively turning a blind eye. According to The New York Times, under Secretary Ben Carson, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development had dropped an investigation it had commissioned to determine whether Facebook’s ad targeting violated the Fair Housing Act. That means HUD, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of that act, is choosing to bury its head in the sand rather than investigate potential violations.

It’s not illegal to market “Straight Outta Compton” differently based on race, as opposed to, say, housing or employment.

Nonetheless, the tactic creates a distinction among people and treats them differently as a result. And these kinds of distinctions have real-world effects.

Consider what it means to white teenagers to watch a trailer featuring black criminals instead of Dr. Dre comparing the police brutality of the 1980s with that of today. Then magnify that effect hundreds and thousands of times.

In today’s world, a huge proportion of advertising and media reaching us is based on accumulated data about us. If ad targeting means my family and yours hear and read about different movies and TV shows, will that make it impossible for America to share another cross-racial Roots moment?

In 1977, some 130 million Americans watched at least part of the famous miniseries, tracing a black family’s journey from Africa to slavery to present day life. And it was transformative.

Targeting, of course, does enable advertisers — including the ACLU — to efficiently reach particular audiences with messages tailored for them. And that can sometimes be a good thing.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge what’s lost with that efficiency — that people outside the expected audience won’t see these messages or even know they exist.

Ad targeting can make the world look different to different people. Some find the web full of job ads for high-paying CEO positions; others mostly ads for sneakers or payday loans.

Our news also reaches us and our networks through ad targeting.

How can this not have huge implications for our ability to exist in a cohesive society? How can we agree on the policies that should govern our world when there are no common reference points for what that world looks like?

It’s not just foreign interference and voter suppression campaigns that make this kind of targeting dangerous for democracy.

Comments

T.W.S.

Well, all i know is that their targeting to ban people for violating their terms of use agreement is a joke. I was just banned for 30 days for using a spin on Yoda's comment in The Phantom Menace about fear leading to anger, anger leading to hate and hate leading to suffering. 30 days for that? And they did not specify what part of the policy I actually violated...because I didn't. They were just being...well, you know.

Joel2828

I think this is the first time in my life I have ever agreed with the ACLU.
My only quibble with this editorial is that she couldn't just say "Department of Housing and Urban Development" and leave it at that. No, she had to show some unconscious bias and commit a very subtle microaggression against Secretary Ben Carson. Don't do that Rachel. Mr Carson is a man of high moral character and great integrity...something we could use a lot more of in this country.

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