Facebook could be hit with a class action lawsuit in Canada alleging that the social media giant has facilitated discrimination in ads for jobs and housing based on factors such as age and gender.
The Montreal law firm IMK LLP filed an application for authorization to institute a class action in Quebec Superior Court Thursday. The application — the first step in launching a class action — must be approved by the court before it can proceed.
The application is being made on behalf of everyone in Canada who had a Facebook account and was excluded from seeing employment and housing ads on Facebook as a result of their “race, sex, civil status, age, ethnic or national origin or social condition.”
While the application is being made in the name of 65-year-old legal assistant Lyse Beaulieu, who has been job-hunting for the past two years, the proposed class action covers hundreds of thousands of people dispersed across Canada, including those it says may not realize they have been discriminated against.
The application covers the period between April 11, 2016 and the date when a ruling is issued in the case.
In addition to asking for damages, the application asks the court to order Facebook to stop allowing employment and housing ads that discriminate on the basis of race, sex, civil status, age, ethnic or national origin or social condition.
“Facebook has been violating the Quebec Charter (of Human Rights and Freedoms) and respective provincial human rights legislation across Canada persistently for years,” the application alleges.
“Making the matter worse, Facebook has acknowledged that its permissive targeting practices are being used in a discriminatory manner in the United States, and it has accordingly accepted to implement mechanisms in the United States to prevent such discriminatory practices going forward. At the same time, Facebook has completely failed to take any measures to cease the perpetuation of these discriminatory practices in Canada.”
Facebook told CBC News it doesn’t condone discrimination.
“There is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it’s strictly prohibited in our policies. Over the past year we’ve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse. We’re aware of the complaint and will respond accordingly.”
Audrey Boctor, one of the three IMK lawyers who signed the application for the class action against Facebook, said it’s been in the works for months. The firm filed the application Thursday after CBC News reported that nearly 100 employers, including government departments, posted job ads on Facebook that experts said could violate Canadian human rights law.
On the surface, the ads made no mention of age or gender. However, they were ‘microtargeted’ so that they would only appear in the Facebook feeds of people who corresponded to the group being targeted. For example, a 55-year-old likely wouldn’t see an ad microtargeted at people aged 18 to 45.
Some of the job ads cited by CBC News that were microtargeted by age are also cited in the 24-page class action application filed Thursday.
On its website, Facebook reminds advertisers that they should not discriminate in their ads. In its application, the law firm said the company’s targeting tools allow companies to “illegally exclude individuals from receiving their ads on the basis of their race, sex, civil status, age, ethnic or national origin or social condition.”
“Despite Facebook’s purported commitment to non-discrimination on its platforms, employers and other companies in Canada remain able to successfully engage in such discriminatory targeting practices that exclude Facebook users from receiving paid advertisements based on protected statuses.”
The application also alleges Facebook has permitted the publication of ads with discriminatory references in their text. The application cited an experiment conducted by the news site The Logic which successfully placed ads on Facebook which restricted an apartment rental to a single man or couple with no children, or which excluded Indigenous applicants.
“Because Facebook claims to engage in a review process that is designed explicitly to screen out discriminatory advertising practices, it has willingly assumed responsibility for the content and targeting of the advertisements it publishes.”
The application claims Facebook’s own ad delivery system also promotes discrimination by delivering ads to people its algorithm decides are more likely to be interested in them, even if the advertisers themselves have not chosen to microtarget.
It could be months before it’s known whether the Quebec Superior Court will certify the class action.