By many measures, 2017 was a phenomenal year for Facebook. Digital advertising soared: Revenue for that category was more than $39 million, up 49 percent from the year before. Mobile advertising, often a tougher proposition for more earthbound media companies, represented 89 percent of ad revenue for the fourth quarter of 2017.
But those numbers also tell the story of a massive accrual of market power. Together, Facebook and Google account for 73 percent of all digital advertising in the United States, according to data compiled by Pivotal Research Group, and Facebook owns the world’s largest pool of personal data from its vast user base, the Economist reports. In a message to shareholders, and users, CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg put a shinier spin on it. In 2018, he vowed, the company will be focused on “making sure Facebook isn’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being and for society.”
Yet that shiny happy future may not be in the offing for everyone. A class-action lawsuit was filed recently in federal court in San Francisco on behalf of the Communications Workers of America and its members, charging that companies routinely use Facebook ads to target younger job candidates — a violation of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.
“You’re literally not seeing discrimination if you’re being filtered out of the job market this way,” Jody Calemine, the CWA’s general counsel, told The Mercury News.
The suit followed an investigation by ProPublica and The New York Times that detailed how leading employers —
including Verizon, Amazon, Target, and Goldman Sachs – were able to place recruitment ads on Facebook limited by age groups.
One example uncovered by the Times/ProPublica report: a Verizon ad on Facebook that showed a smiling millennial, coupled with a promise of a rewarding career. That ad campaign, however, was limited to Facebook feeds of users 25 to 36 years old who lived in Washington, D.C., or had recently visited, or had demonstrated an interest in, finance. For everyone else, the ad was invisible.
As a test, ProPublica also quietly bought ads on Google and LinkedIn that excluded those over 40. After the lawsuit was filed, a Google spokesperson said that such ads, which illegally discriminate based on age, violate its policy, according to The Mercury News. LinkedIn changed its system after being contacted by journalists, and added that it now requires advertisers to check a box promising not to discriminate based on age.
Yet Facebook’s vice president of advertising, Rob Goldman, defended the practice. In digital-speak, in other words, it’s a useful tool to help “people of all ages find work.”
This kind of microtargeting has helped Facebook dominate a world that was once the province of print newspapers. Print help-wanted ads that designated jobs by gender (“Help Wanted – Men”) were deemed discriminatory – a finding upheld by the US Supreme Court in 1973.
Facebook largely seems to skate free because it is insistent it is not a media company, but a tech company protected by the powerful Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, which holds that websites are not responsible for content posted by users. While Section 230 has allowed Internet innovation to flourish to an unprecedented degree, it has also protected Russian trolls, white supremacists, and sex traffickers. But 22 years is an eternity in Internet time. In their offline world, consumers have recourse to the court system if they buy a faulty product, and job-seekers are afforded federal protection against discrimination. Facebook should, at the very least, show that it respects the rights of workers.
Equal access to jobs is not the only reason that lawmakers should reconsider Section 230. Extending blanket protection to enterprises that act like Gilded Age plutocrats cannot help but stifle the innovators and startups of the future. All in all, that would be bad for people’s well-being, and for society.