The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has filed a legal motion against Facebook, claiming that the company violated the Fair Housing Act and discriminated against people based on “race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability.”
This is HUD’s latest response to multiple revelations about Facebook’s targeted advertising program. Journalists from establishments like ProPublica discovered that Facebook allowed advertisers to discriminate posts based on a variety of categories. Essentially, it was shown that organizations trying to rent out real estate could, for example, publish ads that were show to only white people. The Fair Housing Act states clearly that it’s illegal for any housing advertisement to discriminate “with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.”
This issue first came to light in 2017, but has remained a persistent problem for Facebook–highlighting the sometimes nefarious underpinnings of its advertising platform. Most recently, Facebook said it would halt all ads that attempted to discriminate against certain groups of people, as well as build a separate advertising portal for certain kinds of ads, such as housing.
HUD has been investigating Facebook’s practices for a bit now. Last August it filed a formal complaint against the company for this housing discrimination. This latest charge is on behalf of those discriminated. It seeks damages for violating the Fair Housing Act, as well as damages that “will fully compensate any aggrieved persons for any harm caused by [Facebook’s] discriminatory conduct.”
A Facebook spokesperson provided me with the following statement:
We’re surprised by HUD’s decision, as we’ve been working with them to address their concerns and have taken significant steps to prevent ads discrimination. Last year we eliminated thousands of targeting options that could potentially be misused, and just last week we reached historic agreements with the National Fair Housing Alliance, ACLU, and others that change the way housing, credit, and employment ads can be run on Facebook. While we were eager to find a solution, HUD insisted on access to sensitive information – like user data – without adequate safeguards. We’re disappointed by today’s developments, but we’ll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues.
This story is developing.