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Facebook's 'ethnic affinity' feature draws criticism from civil rights groups, lawmakers

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A social media giant is changing an advertising policy after lawmakers and civil rights groups blasted the company for the use of its "ethnic affinity" feature. 

Facebook does not ask its more than a billion users to disclose their race, but by recording users' habits, it classifies them in certain ethnic categories. When buying an ad, companies could exclude an ethnic affinity group from seeing that ad on Facebook.  

Recently, Facebook came under fire for the use of ethnic affinity after the group Pro Publica bought an ad promoting a meeting for housing opportunities. To highlight the issue, Pro Publica excluded users that Facebook associates with African American, Asian American and Hispanic ethnicities.

The Congressional Black Caucus wrote a letter to Facebook urging them to stop the practice. Facebook responded by changing its policy to no longer allow companies to exclude based on ethnic affinity when buying advertising for housing, employment or credit. 

"If you look at clothing for a certain type of designer, you're going to get ads for that designer. That's how marketing works," Tulane University Social Media Expert Ashley Nelson said. "The slippery slope is that it dealt with housing, and there are laws in placed based on housing against discrimination." 

"In housing, employment and credit, there are very specific anti-discrimination laws, and so using this feature in Facebook it is possible for rental agencies and lenders to illegally exclude certain affiliations," Search Influence CEO Will Scott said. 

Scott said target marketing is not new but specifically singling out groups is a change. 

"It's really no different in the old days when you would buy a list by zip code. You weren't specifically excluding any ethnic affiliations, but by virtue of where you were targeting your advertising, you knew pretty certain who you were advertising," Scott said.  

By going to Facebook.com/ads/preferences, users can find their ethnic affinity under the lifestyle and cultures tab. Some users are not categorized with any ethic affinity or may not be categorized in the affinity they would think. 

"One of the data sources that Facebook uses is Acxiom, and Acxiom you can go look at the data. It's aboutthedata.com," Scott said. "They've got just about everything right, except Acxiom thinks I'm African American."

Still, allowing the use of ethnic affinity for some advertising does not sit well with some lawmakers. 

"If they did not eliminate the feature, then it definitely does not go far enough because you're still allowing others to be able discriminate possibly in other areas if you exclude them," Louisiana Black Caucus Chairman and State Rep. Joseph Bouie said. 

Facebook released a statement about ethnic affinity saying: "We take these issues seriously. discriminatory advertising has no place on Facebook. We are constantly trying to find ways to improve enforcement of our anti-discrimination policies."   

The statement went on to say Facebook will disable the use of ethnic affinity marketing for certain types of ads and it promises to educate advertisers. 

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