Data and technology are the new frontier in the struggle for civil rights, and out on the frontier, a lot can go wrong. Millions of people find their homes or learn about jobs through ads, but what once took place in the pages of newspapers now happens on digital platforms. Laws such as the Fair Housing Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have long helped hold newspapers and their advertisers accountable for discriminatory marketing. But today, digital platforms—which deliver exponentially more ads than their newsprint predecessors—are making these core civil-rights laws increasingly challenging to enforce. The opacity of the digital-ad ecosystem is a major barrier to ensuring justice and equal opportunity.
Lawyers and other advocates who seek to protect civil rights in digital marketing have made some progress, but there is still so much we don’t know.
Concerns about targeted marketing often start with Facebook, which has massive market share and access to enormous amounts of personal data. It took in-depth reporting from ProPublica to reveal that the social-media giant allowed its advertisers to exclude people from seeing housing ads based on their “ethnic affinity.” That led to two years of concerted litigation and advocacy that culminated last month, when civil-rights and labor groups reached historic legal settlements with Facebook. Under the terms of those settlements, Facebook will stop allowing landlords, employers, creditors, and similar advertisers to explicitly target — or exclude — people based on age, gender, zip code, and hundreds of other sensitive targeting categories, including those relating to race and ethnicity. These changes were a meaningful victory. They show that major internet companies can be pressured into better protecting people’s civil rights.