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How Facebook is cracking down on these ads

NEW YORK — Facebook is cracking down on advertisers’ ability to target and potentially discriminate against users by race. The move follows a wave of criticism in recent days.

The social network plans to disable an option that let advertisers target or exclude users based on their “ethnic affinity” if those ads are for housing, employment or credit.

“There are many non-discriminatory uses of our ethnic affinity solution in these areas, but we have decided that we can best guard against discrimination by suspending these types of ads” Erin Egan, VP of U.S. public policy and chief privacy officer at Facebook, wrote in a blog post on Friday.

Facebook came under fire late last month after a ProPublica report found the “ethnic affinities” option could be used to to discriminate against users in housing-related ads, which is forbidden under the Fair Housing Act.

Facebook does not actually ask users to identify their race. Instead, Facebook extrapolates the ethnic affinity of a user based on the content they like and their general activity on the platform.

This tool is one part of what makes Facebook so attractive to advertisers. Not only does the social network offer access to 1.79 billion users worldwide, it also provides advanced targeting options so advertisers can reach the most relevant of those users.

Christian Martinez, Facebook’s head of multicultural, initially defended the advertising tool by noting that the company’s ad policies “strictly prohibit” discriminatory advertising.

“If we learn of advertising on our platform that involves this kind of discrimination, we will take aggressive enforcement action,” Martinez wrote in October.

But that wasn’t enough to ease concerns.

Several members of Congress signed a letter last week accusing Facebook of being “complicit in promoting restrictive housing practices.” Facebook users also sued the company for violating the Fair Housing Act.

Egan said in her post that Facebook has been meeting with some of those Congress members as well as Congress’s black and Hispanic caucuses “to combat wrongful discrimination.”

In addition to disabling the ethnic affinity tool for certain categories, Egan says Facebook will “require advertisers to affirm that they will not engage in discriminatory advertising.”

The advertising issue comes at a time when some Facebook users are already feeling uneasy about the realization that certain content may be excluded from their news feed.

Following the presidential election this week, there were renewed complaints that Facebook is keeping its users in “filter bubbles” that effectively eliminate any news that users don’t like or agree with.