DE&I DE&I In Marketing

Digital Redlining: What is it? What can we do?

Digital redlining separates a woman at a computer from a wireless internet connection.

Redlining is the discriminatory practice of banks and mortgage lenders withholding services from people who live in certain neighborhoods, particularly communities of color. While illegal today thanks to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, other types of redlining still exist, just not in the exact same forms they did in the past. Digital redlining is, unfortunately, alive and well in 2022. 

What Is Digital Redlining?

Digital redlining is the use of technology to create and reinforce race and class inequities. While digital redlining was a problem before COVID-19 came to the United States, the pandemic brought even more attention to the issue. One form of digital redlining is when internet service providers refuse to offer specific services to lower-income communities because they aren’t viewed as “profitable.” Over the years, reliable internet service has become essential for work, school, telehealth, general communication and more. Slow, antiquated technologies cause people living in low-income neighborhoods to struggle to stay connected. To put it simply, it’s a way for providers to discriminate against their customers based on where they live.

For example, an internet service provider refusing to offer broadband internet service in low-income neighborhoods while offering fiber internet in wealthier neighborhoods is a form of digital redlining. People living in these neighborhoods are forced to settle for slow, low-quality internet service, which can prevent them from attending virtual classes, scheduling telehealth appointments and searching for employment opportunities online. Sometimes these customers also pay the same amount, if not more, for slow internet service as wealthier customers who have high-speed internet and live in different neighborhoods do.

Let’s say two parents and their children are at home and all three children need to attend classes virtually throughout the day while each parent works remotely (a case that has been especially common during the pandemic). In this scenario, a family with slow internet service will likely have to decide who gets to connect to the internet at certain times throughout the day instead of all five family members being able to stay online simultaneously. This example highlights the fact that reliable, high-speed internet access has become a necessity for families across the country, and certain neighborhoods are unfairly being left behind. 

Digital Redlining in Advertising

Another form of digital redlining is excluding specific populations or groups from seeing certain types of content on the internet. For example, The Department of Housing and Urban Development sued Facebook in 2019 due to the social media platform’s ad targeting tools allowing advertisers to exclude certain consumers from viewing ads related to housing in particular. Advertisers were able to discriminate against consumers on the basis of gender, disability, familial status, location and national origin, among other problems. While Facebook did agree to do away with discriminatory targeting options for housing, employment and credit-related ads in 2019, the system still had major flaws. Just last year, Facebook decided to no longer allow advertisers to target consumers based on race, health, religion, sexual orientation and political affiliation due to the harm it was causing users. 

While certain targeting options may seem beneficial when it comes to reaching your intended audience, it’s important to be aware of the fact that you may be concealing valuable information and opportunities from marginalized groups. That’s never ok. For this reason, you should keep digital redlining in mind when it comes to all forms of digital marketing.

The Bottom Line

Advertising is all about getting a message out to consumers who can benefit from a product or service . When certain consumers don’t even have access to reliable internet service to see that message and other consumers are purposefully being excluded from viewing certain content, there’s a large problem. Redlining is unethical whether it takes place on the internet or offline. It’s on us to acknowledge how harmful discriminatory ad targeting practices are, to advocate for change and to be part of the solution instead of the problem.


Kayla Baugh