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T-Mobile, Amazon, and other companies are accused of using Facebook ads to exclude older Americans from jobs

REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo

Three workers and a large union sued T-Mobile, Amazon, Facebook, and other corporations on Wednesday, accusing them of using Facebook’s ad targeting tools to exclude older Americans from job opportunities.

In the age discrimination suit, the plaintiffs cited a T-Mobile job ad, which was targeted to Facebook users ages 18-38. Facebook, which is also named as a defendant, targeted job ads to people ages 21-55, according to a screenshot in the legal filing.

The class action lawsuit against 13 companies was brought by the Communication Workers of America, along with three American workers, Linda Bradley, Maurice Anscombe, and Lura Callahan, who range in age from 45 to 67.

Under U.S. law, companies are prohibited from discriminating based on age in employment advertising, recruiting, and hiring, and it is also unlawful to publish a job ad that indicates a preference related to age.

The lawsuit takes issue with a practice -- the targeting of ads by age and demographics -- that is ubiquitous in online advertising and is not limited to Facebook. Facebook, however, takes additional steps to explain to users why they are seeing an ad. These steps, which appear in a window after a user clicks on an ad, served as the documentation of the demographic categories used by different corporations.

The lawsuit comes at a moment when Facebook and other technology giants are facing pressure to mitigate the negative social consequences of content posted on their platforms, particularly the impact of ad-targeting. Facebook, Google, and Twitter are under fire for creating tools that enabled Russian operatives to target specific groups of Americans ahead of the 2016 election. Facebook’s software also enabled advertisers to send ads based on other undesirable categories, such as "Jew-hater," and to send targeted ads for housing to whites only. (Facebook claimed that it had subsequently tweaked its systems so that this can longer happen, but a recent report in ProPublica suggested otherwise.)

In addition to employment, civil rights laws prohibit discrimination in housing, employment, lending, voting, and education.

Ageism and bias against older job candidates is a longstanding issue, particularly in Silicon Valley. But as job searches have migrated online in recent years, the situation has worsened due to ad-targeting categories, the plaintiff argue. “Due to this lawsuit, older workers may finally understand why their job searches — that have migrated online in recent years—are more difficult than they ought to be,” they wrote.

On Thursday, Facebook’s Vice President for Ads, Rob Goldman, published a blog post that compared targeting advertising online to the standard practice of advertising in magazines or TV shows that are known to appeal to certain demographics. Goldman said that the practice was appropriate so long as the overall marketing by a company was “broadly based and inclusive.”

Simply showing certain job ads to different age groups on services like Facebook or Google may not in itself be discriminatory — just as it can be OK to run employment ads in magazines and on TV shows targeted at younger or older people,” he wrote.

Goldman's post was in response to a story, published late Wednesday by ProPublica and the New York Times, which showed how companies use Facebook to exclude older job candidates.

T-Mobile declined to comment.

"We have a longstanding practice of not commenting on pending litigation," Amazon spokesperson Shannon Midgley said. "However, we recently audited our recruiting ads on Facebook and discovered some had targeting that was inconsistent with our approach of searching for any candidate over the age of 18. We have corrected those ads." (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post).