MONTREAL — A class-action lawsuit alleging Facebook illegally allowed advertisers to target users based on their race, age and gender can move forward after the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the social media giant.
Facebook had sought to have Canada’s highest court overturn a Quebec Court of Appeal decision authorizing the class action.
Audrey Boctor, one of the lawyers behind the suit, said the top court’s ruling means the case can now move toward an eventual trial.
“We know for sure now that the class action can go ahead,” she said in an interview Monday. “Facebook had asked the Supreme Court to hear the case and the Supreme Court declined, so that means that the Court of Appeal’s judgment stands and now we go forward to the merits.”
The Supreme Court said Thursday it will not hear the case, declining to provide reasons for its decision as is customary.
The suit was brought on behalf of Lyse Beaulieu, a 65-year-old woman who was looking for a new job. She alleges she was never shown employment ads on the social media site, despite being an active user, because advertisers chose to exclude people her age.
The suit — filed in 2019 when the company known today as Meta Platforms Inc., was still called Facebook — alleges the social media site violated Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms by offering advertisers tools to target housing and employment ads to users based on their age, race and gender and ensuring that people from outside those targeted groups wouldn’t see the ads.
It also alleges Facebook’s algorithm excluded people from seeing certain ads for reasons prohibited by law and claims the platform allowed ads that were explicitly discriminatory in their language.
The Court of Appeal decision authorizing the suit includes all Quebec residents who were searching for jobs or housing and weren’t shown relevant ads on Facebook because advertisers had decided to exclude them based on their race, age or gender.
Boctor says the case is about combating new forms of discrimination in employment and housing.
“We’ve banned outright discrimination in those areas for a long time now, and for good reason. And this is really about combating new forms of that same type of discrimination, so instead of a job ad saying certain people need not apply, now the ads are just not getting to the people who we maybe want to exclude from applying for those jobs,” she said.
Facebook argued in court that it’s not responsible for discrimination by third-party advertisers and said it takes down discriminatory ads when they’re reported.
The Court of Appeal decision said Anthony Howard, the director of privacy and data policy at Facebook, Inc., provided a sworn statement that Facebook doesn’t allow advertisers to target users by race.
He said the platform has also taken specific steps to address discrimination in housing and employment ads, according to the Court of Appeal decision, which notes those changes were made after the application for a class-action suit was filed.
The Quebec Superior Court had initially rejected the request to certify the case as a class action on the grounds that there was no identifiable class and that some of the claims were based on speculation.
That decision was overturned by the Appeal Court.
Boctor said the next stage will involve identifying potential members of the class action and notifying them.
Meta did not respond to a request for comment.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 5, 2023.