Facebook has been under scrutiny for a number of issues, including privacy rights and political ads. Now there is a HUD complaint alleging that the social media platform has violated the Fair Housing Act.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development complaint (hud.gov) states that, “Facebook unlawfully discriminates by enabling advertisers to restrict which Facebook users receive housing-related ads based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin and disability. Facebook mines extensive user data and classifies its users based on protected characteristics. Facebook’s ad targeting tools then invite advertisers to express unlawful preferences by suggesting discriminatory options, and Facebook effectuates the delivery of housing-related ads to certain users and not others based on those users’ actual or imputed protected traits…The alleged policies and practices of Facebook violate the Fair Housing Act based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin and disability.”
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HUD’s August 17th press release that announced the complaint alleges that Facebook “invites advertisers to express unlawful preferences by offering discriminatory options, allowing them to effectively limit housing options for these protected classes under the guise of ‘targeted advertising.’” HUD emphasizes that the Fair Housing Act “prohibits discrimination in housing transactions including print and online advertisement on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or familial status.” HUD’s Secretary-initiated complaint follows the Department’s investigation into Facebook’s advertising platform which includes targeting tools that enable advertisers to filter prospective tenants or homebuyers based on these protected classes.
Anna Maria Farias, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity who filed the complaint, stated; “The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination including those who might limit or deny housing options with a click of a mouse…When Facebook uses the vast amount of personal data it collects to help advertisers to discriminate, it’s the same as slamming the door in someone’s face.”
Allegations of fair housing violations are not new for Facebook. ProPublica alleged in 2016 that Facebook allowed advertisers to purchase discriminatory ads through a targeted advertising platform (Facebook Lets Advertisers Exclude Users by Race; propublica.org; October 28, 2016). The targeted advertising platform had a “Ethnic Affinity” section (at that time, it was alleged that Facebook assigned “Ethnic Affinity” to subscribers based on posts and “likes”). Facebook claimed that “Ethnic Affinity” is different than race, and was part of a “multicultural advertising” effort.
Following ProPublica’s investigative reporting, HUD briefly investigated the matter. Facebook was said to have changed the targeted advertisement platform by moving “Ethnic Affinity.” Additionally, an anti-discrimination advertising system was to be implemented. However, a follow up investigation found that the reporters were able to purchase housing advertising that should have been rejected for discriminatory preferences (Facebook (Still) Letting Housing Advertisers Exclude Users by Race; propublica.com; November 21, 2017).
Facebook is not the first website to be accused of fair housing violations. In 2006, a civil rights non-profit sued Craigslist for discriminatory housing ads that were posted by users. At the center of the matter was if Craigslist was considered a publisher. The case was dismissed based on a Communications Decency Act provision that states, “…[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Even though the suit was dismissed, Craigslist worked with HUD and housing advocacy groups to implement technology to prevent discriminatory words and phrases in housing ads (craigslist.org).