After public outcry over news that Facebook's "ethnic affinity" tool for advertisers allows housing and employment ads to be directed only at white people, for example, the company has pledged to stamp out this use of this feature.
According to a blog post published by Facebook on Friday, the company will "build tools to detect and automatically disable the use of the ethnic affinity feature for ads that Facebook deems to be offering housing, employment, or credit." The company states that it will also try to educate advertisers on how the ethnic affinity tool should be used, and require them to "affirm" that they will not use it maliciously. Racial discrimination in the areas of housing and employment is illegal under US law.
Facebook did not provide a timeline for when tools to disable discriminatory ads will be available, nor did it say whether advertisers will still be able to create discriminatory ads in the first place.
The company has not yet responded to Motherboard's request for comment.
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Facebook is not removing the ethnic affinity feature entirely, however. The tool uses data to infer each user's ethnicity. (Facebook does not ask users to list their ethnicity on their profiles.) The ethnic affinity tool has many non-discriminatory uses, the company argued in its blog post, and can be used to "promote inclusion of underrepresented communities."
Notably, the ethnic affinity feature was used by the nominees during the 2016 election campaign to direct their ads to specific minorities. In an article about how political ads are targeted on Facebook, the New York Times noted that a man in Pennsylvania saw a Hillary Clinton ad because he belonged to the audience "Ethnic affinity—Asian American (US)," according to Facebook.
Facebook's role in determining what sorts of information people see has been the subject of public scrutiny recently, and the company has responded to criticism lukewarmly. When asked at a recent tech conference about the common perception that the large amount of fake news on Facebook influenced the 2016 election, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it was a "pretty crazy" idea. Lamentations from the media about the influence of Facebook's mysterious News Feed algorithm have similarly fallen upon deaf ears among higher-ups at the social media site.
But, at least in terms of racial discrimination in ads, the company seems to be listening. As for how well their promised solution will work in practice, we'll have to wait and see.
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