The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on Thursday announced that it’s charging Facebook with “discrimination” in its advertising practices for housing.
In a complaint, HUD accused the company of violating the Fair Housing Act by "encouraging, enabling and causing" discrimination by excluding certain users from viewing housing ads on the platform.
The group charges that Facebook willfully allowed advertisers to exclude people from seeing housing ads based on their neighborhood, interests, religion, race, and color, including whether they were “classified as parents, non-American-born, non-Christian, interested in accessibility, interested in Hispanic culture, or a wide variety of other interests that closely align with the Fair Housing Act’s protected classes.”
“The Charge concludes that by grouping users who have similar attributes and behaviors (unrelated to housing) and presuming a shared interest or disinterest in housing-related advertisements, Facebook’s mechanisms function just like an advertiser who intentionally targets or excludes users based on their protected class,” HUD said in a statement.
Accused of audience-targeting
Last March, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) and three of its member groups sued Facebook over the same issue. The suit alleged that Facebook allowed landlords and real estate brokers to exclude certain groups from viewing advertisements for housing, despite being warned that targeting housing ads in this manner may violate fair housing laws.
In a statement, Facebook said it was “surprised” by HUD’s decision. A company spokesperson noted that Facebook has 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,” the spokesperson said.
HUD is seeking unspecified damages for any person who was harmed by Facebook’s advertising policies, as well as “the maximum civil penalty” against the company for each violation of housing laws.
“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”