ACLU Pushes Facebook a Little Further Down the Road Toward Regulation

Claims of gender bias from advertisers are misguided, but problematic all the same

Outages will have limited impact on Facebook stock

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When it was young and new, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) was all the rage, connecting people with friends and family in ways never available before. Still, as is usually the case whenever crowds gather (in this case, under an umbrella established by a for-profit company), sooner or later some controversial stuff is going to happen. Welcome to the world.

What’s the latest controversy facing owners of Facebook stock? The American Civil Liberties Union along with the Communications Workers of America labor union have filed a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming the social network unfairly discriminates against female job-seekers by only showing certain job-opportunity ads to male users.

The argument is… understandable. Gender and racial discrimination is a real thing, in and out of the workplace.

Might this be a case, however, where activism is taking aim at the wrong party, or even the wrong problem? More than that though, are Facebook and other channels being unfairly forced to fight for control of their advertising business?

Both Employer and Employment Agency

The ACLU’s argument goes like this: “Facebook, which is both an employer and an employment agency under Title VII and analogous state and local laws, has engaged in a pattern, practice, or policy of targeting and sending job advertisements and related recruitment and hiring opportunities to male Facebook users as prospective job applicants, while excluding female and other non-male prospective job applicants from receiving the job advertisements and opportunities.”

The ad highlighted as the biggest offender came from the Greensboro, North Carolina police department. Not only did it feature two male police officers, the advertisement of the job opportunity was limited to Facebook’s younger male users… a limitation offered by Facebook’s highly targeted platform, and utilized by Greensboro P.D.’s recruiting office.

The complaint filed by the ACLU and the CWA was made on behalf of three women who believe they should have seen the same advertisements.

Nuanced Situation

The complexities and nuances of the situation are clear. Though there are female police officers, by and large a male is far more likely to be interested in a law-enforcement career. Simultaneously, discriminatory employment law is generally only in effect if a qualified individual has been denied a job he or she actually applied for. It’s not clear if the three women represented by the ACLU were interested in, or applied for, a position with the Greensboro P.D.

Perhaps above all else, is it Facebook’s role to inspect all ads and try to determine their advertising customers’ true intent? Or, to rephrase the question in the ACLU’s terms, is Facebook truly an employment agency?

It would be naive to believe that the letter of the law still stands above an underlying sense of fairness. In other words, no, Facebook isn’t actually an employment agency, but if it serves one, serves as one or somewhat looks like it could be one, that’s often good enough for the public. Sometimes it’s even good enough for a judge and jury.

This is a slippery slope, however.

Be Careful What You Ask For

The question nobody’s asking (but should be) is, where do these kinds of genderless sensibilities end?

There are very few widely aimed advertisements any more. Most are designed from the ground up to get the attention of consumers of a certain age or sex, as that’s proven more effective. The media is also able to time and place ads for maximum impact. Kids-oriented commercials appear after school and on Saturday mornings. Beer commercials aimed at men air during football games. More female-appealing ads are evident on the Hallmark channel, which is also meant to draw women viewers.

But some men do watch the Hallmark channel. Some women like football. Might they soon be able to demand exposure to a different kind of advertisement, whether or not that’s in the medium’s best interest?

Employment is a slightly different breed of animal, to be fair. Newspapers were required to ax their different set of want ads — some for men, others for women — long, long ago, and nobody qualified and able to do a job should be denied that job because of their gender.

If the Greensboro Police Department, however, knows that showing such ads to Facebook’s female users would yield a poor response, should they be forced to purchase those ads anyway? Beer advertisers wouldn’t. Neither would a maker of handbags and purses. But, the current pace and trajectory of social change says they may not have such choice in the foreseeable future.

Bottom Line for Facebook Stock

There are no easy answers here. Pay inequality persists, and there’s no denying that a would-be female police officer that didn’t see the ad in question may never even attempt to secure a law-enforcement position. There’s also no denying that the male/female breakdown among police officers is overwhelmingly male.

That’s not Facebook’s fault though, and leaning on it rather than the job advertisers themselves to fix social inequalities is not only unfair, it’s ineffective.

Perhaps worse, each of these misdirected efforts pushes the social media industry one step closer to regulation, with oversight provided by officials that not only don’t understand how social media works, but are also increasingly out of touch with real people’s problems. That should alarm all current and prospective FB stock owners, even if it’s a slow walk to an environment where regulation is heavy-handed.

As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.


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