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EDITORIAL: Federal departments’ age-targeted job ads spark cries of discrimination

Facebook’s targeted ads have led to human rights lawsuits in the United States, and are raising ire in Canada. — Reuters

(Younger) help wanted

Sometimes, you respond to an advertisement for a job.

And sometimes, a job ad responds to you instead — but if it does, is that fair?

Let’s back up a bit.

Facebook was the subject of the day at the meeting of the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy in Ottawa Tuesday. (The biggest news out of the meeting being that committee’s subpoena was snubbed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.)

One of the topics that came up was the ability for employers to pick who would see their ads — in particular, targeting employment ads only among people in a certain age range.

It’s not who sees the ads — it’s who can’t see them.

It’s hard to apply, after all, to a job that you didn’t even know was open.

The microtargeting, as it turned out, let a number of federal government departments send ads directly to groups of prospective employees, based on their ages.

Documents tabled in House of Commons show that the Canada Border Services Agency, the RCMP and Correctional Service Canada have been buying ads that were intended to only reach Facebook users between the ages of 18 and 34.

In other word, the departments used Facebook’s technology to effectively discriminate against Canadians based on age.

Consider this federal government explanation of the Canadian Charter of Rights: “Equality rights are at the core of the Charter. They are intended to ensure that everyone is treated with the same respect, dignity and consideration (i.e. without discrimination), regardless of personal characteristics such as race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, residency, marital status or citizenship.”

Notice the word “age” in there?

Exactly.

Documents tabled in House of Commons show that the Canada Border Services Agency, the RCMP and Correctional Service Canada have been buying ads that were intended to only reach Facebook users between the ages of 18 and 34.

The targeted advertising has generated some legitimate political ire.

“It is fundamentally against the law. The government has to explain itself now, those departments that placed those inappropriate microtargeted ads on the basis of age and gender have to explain themselves,” Conservative MP Peter Kent told the CBC. “And perhaps those postings, if they have not yet been filled, should be reviewed, revisited and perhaps some of those postings should be reopened.”

For its part, a Facebook spokesman said the social media giant is going to change the ability to target ads that way — especially after human rights lawsuits in the United States. In other words, they’ll make changes because they’ve been successfully forced to take action.

It’s yet another example of how social media companies aren’t your friend or your community. They’re businesses, and if they’re not properly policed, they’ll profit from anyone willing to skirt the rules that apply everywhere else.

As the micro-targeted ads demonstrate, even our own federal government isn’t above leaping at the opportunity to undertake some behind-the-scenes discrimination.

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