Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and other lawmakers are calling for regulators to review Meta’s handling of sexual health ads for women. Katherine Frey/The Washington Post

A group of congressional Democrats is urging the Federal Trade Commission to look into allegations that tech giant Meta is discriminately rejecting sexual-health advertisements targeted for women while allowing those aimed at men – a possible violation of federal law.

In January 2022, the nonprofit Center for Intimacy Justice reported a finding that the Facebook and Instagram parent company turned down ads from dozens of women’s reproductive health groups on grounds they contained “adult content” or promoted “adult products and services.”

In response, the social media company overturned some of those takedowns and later updated its rules to include more examples of ads that are allowed, such as for “products addressing the effects of menopause,” “pain relief during sex” and “sex education,” according to a report.

But the nonprofit in April filed a complaint with the agency, alleging that despite the rules changes, Meta is still “persistently and systemically rejecting advertisements aimed at women and people of underrepresented genders, while permitting those targeted toward men.”

Now, Democratic lawmakers are calling on the FTC to step in and take action if it finds the tech giant violated federal laws against unfair and deceptive trade practices.

“Meta’s alleged discrimination in sexual and reproductive health advertising would perpetuate inequality of access to health services for women and people of underrepresented genders, especially those from marginalized communities,” Sens. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Peter Welch, D-Vt. and Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., wrote in a letter Wednesday first shared with The Technology 202.

Jackie Rotman, whose nonprofit filed the complaint, said they decided to take up the issue with federal regulators after they found Meta’s policy changes had little effect on advertisers.

“It’s disheartening and sad that so many of the women’s health entrepreneurs and nonprofits we work with are still facing the exact same barriers,” she said in an interview.

In its complaint, the nonprofit cites instances where Meta allegedly rejected ads for treating “painful sex,” including for those who have experienced menopause or endometriosis, or for devices “designed to relieve pelvic floor dysfunction,” which can be a menopause symptom.

The group is calling for the FTC to force Meta to investigate how “algorithmic bias” in its ads review process may be contributing to discrimination and to dedicate more “resources and team members” to monitoring for potential discrepancies.

“We hope that by the senators and . . . representatives raising this that the issue is elevated and this is an issue that the FTC prioritizes,” Rotman said.

The FTC confirmed receipt of the letter but declined to comment.

“We welcome ads for women’s health and sexual wellness products but we prohibit nudity and have specific rules about how these products can be marketed on our platform,” Meta spokesperson Ryan Daniels said in a statement.

Even if the social media company evenly applied its updated rules, Rotman said, there would still be gaps that could disproportionately harm women.

While Meta’s rules prohibit ads that promote products “that focus on sexual pleasure or enhancement, such as sex toys or sexual enhancement products,” they explicitly allow ads promoting “sexual and reproductive health or wellness” such as “[e]rectile dysfunction products” or those that prevent “premature ejaculation,” she noted.

Rotman suggested that those rules create a double standard.

“We believe that premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction ads should be allowed as an important and valuable part of sexual health. But we think that those are also clearly about pleasure, and that there’s a discrepancy and just discriminatory aspects of how Facebook is writing its sexual pleasure policy,” she said.

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