Facebook sued for allegedly allowing housing discrimination

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The besieged social networking company faces one more headache

The National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) and three of its member groups have sued Facebook, claiming its advertising allows landlords and real estate brokers to exclude certain groups from viewing ads for housing.

The complaint alleges that Facebook, despite being warned that discriminatory advertising may violate fair housing laws, still offers that option to advertisers. Specifically, the suit alleges Facebook allows advertisers to exclude families with children, women, and other protected classes of people.

In a statement to ConsumerAffairs, a spokesperson for Facebook denied the allegations in the suit.

"There is absolutely no place for discrimination on Facebook," the statement said. "We believe this lawsuit is without merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously."

Facebook's business model allows very targeted advertising so that advertisers reach only a narrow group of potential customers. The suit claims that's fine if you're selling shoes, but not if you are selling or renting homes.

Law doesn't ban all discrimination

According to NOLO, a legal issues website, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) bans housing discrimination in the U.S., but it doesn't ban all forms of it.

"Instead, the FHA aims to ensure that applicants or prospective tenants (prospects) and current tenants don't get treated differently because of certain characteristics or attributes they have," legal experts at the site write. "A group of people who share such an identified characteristic is collectively known as a protected class."

The plaintiffs in the case say they created a fictitious realty firm and submitted dozens of housing ads for Facebook review. They say Facebook responded with specific lists of groups they were allowed to exclude, including families with children, moms with children of certain ages, women or men, and other categories based on sex or family status.

But the FHA forbids discrimination against seven protected groups, including sex, disability, and families. The suit claims ads accepted by Facebook exclude those groups.

Latest headache

The suit is just the latest legal headache for Facebook. The company is grappling with backlash over revelations that an app developer legally tapped into Facebook data and then sold it to a third party, in violation of Facebook rules.

“Amid growing public concern in the past weeks that Facebook has mishandled users’ data, our investigation shows that Facebook also allows and even encourages its paid advertisers to discriminate using its vast trove of personal data,” said Lisa Rice, NFHA’s CEO. “Facebook’s use and abuse of user data for discriminatory purposes needs to stop."

In 2016, ProPublica reported that its investigation showed Facebook’s ad platform permitted advertisers for a variety of goods and services, including housing, to exclude African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans from seeing ads. Facebook responded by removing those options.

The suit asks the court to order Facebook to change its advertising platform and practices to comply with fair housing laws.

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