MENLO PARK (CBS SF) – Facebook is under scrutiny after a report claims the social network allows advertisers to exclude on the basis of race, which could violate federal anti-discrimination laws.

According to ProPublica, while advertisers can target ads to users based on their interests and background, it also gives the option of excluding groups it calls “Ethnic Affinities.”

The authors of the report tested the feature by placing a housing-related ad through the network’s self-service ad portal. That ad excluded anyone with an “affinity” for African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanics. Facebook reportedly approved the ad 15 minutes after the order was placed.

Under the Fair Housing Act, it is illegal to publish “any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment ads “indicating prohibited preference, limitation, specification or discrimination.”

A Facebook official told ProPublica that the social network does not ask members about their race and that one’s “Ethnic Affinity” is based on pages and posts they have liked or engaged with on Facebook.

In a blog post, Facebook said that “exclusion targeting” is a common practice in the ad industry.

“For example, a nonprofit that’s hosting a career fair for the Hispanic community can use Facebook ads to reach people who have an interest in that community. And a merchant selling hair care products that are designed for black women can reach people who are most likely to want its products. That merchant also may want to exclude other ethnicities for whom their hair care products are not relevant.”

The social network also said its policies prohibit advertisers from using ad targeting for discriminatory purposes.

“Our ad policies strictly prohibit this kind of advertising, and it’s against the law. If we learn of advertising on our platform that involves this kind of discrimination, we will take aggressive enforcement action,” the company said.

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