The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is charging Facebook with violating the Fair Housing Act. In announcing the charge, HUD says that Facebook encouraged, enabled and caused housing discrimination through its advertising platform. HUD’s charge is the latest controversy surrounding Facebook, which has recently been involved in issues of selling user data without permission and Russian election meddling.
HUD’s charge against Facebook can be read here.
The charge is based on an investigation prompted by a Secretary initiated Fair Housing Complaint filed in August by HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing and housing-related services based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or familial status. HUD says that Facebook allows advertisers to exclude people on the basis of a wide range of characteristics that line up with the Fair Housing Act’s protected classes. For example, advertisers could keep people from seeing ads if they are parents, not American-born, non-Christian, are interested in accessibility, or are interested in Hispanic culture. Facebook also gave advertisers the option to show ads only to men or women. In addition, Facebook’s platform also allowed advertisers draw a red line around neighborhoods and exclude people who live there from seeing their ads.
HUD also charges that Facebook uses protected characteristics of people to determine who will view ads, regardless of whether advertisers are trying to reach a wide or narrow audience. Facebook uses extensive data mining to collect information about its users and their behavior. It gets this information from both its own platform and other websites. It then uses machine learning and other techniques to predict user responses to a given ad. Facebook then groups users together based on these attributes. HUD alleges that when Facebook presumes someone in these groups does or does not have an interest in housing ads, it functions just like an advertiser who intentionally targets or excludes users based on their protected class.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement that, “Facebook is discriminating against people based on who they are and where they live. Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”
HUD’s charge will be heard by a federal administrative law judge, although either party can request it be heard in federal court instead. If the administrative law judge determines that discrimination has occurred, damages may be awarded for harm caused by the discrimination. The judge can also order injunctive relief, which means halting discriminatory practices and requiring changes in practice. Fines can also be imposed in the public interest. If the case goes to federal court, punitive damages may also be awarded.
Only a week before HUD filed its charges, Facebook settled lawsuits with a number of organizations claiming discrimination in advertising for housing, employment, and credit-related services. From 2016 to 2018, five lawsuits were brought by civil rights and labor organizations, workers and individuals. The lawsuits said that Facebook’s advertising platform kept certain people from seeing ads for housing, credit and jobs based on their race, gender or age. One complaint said that job listings were targeted almost exclusively to male applicants, and another complaint alleged that Facebook ads from several major employers targeted specific age groups. At the time of the filing in 2017, Facebook said that age-based targeting is “an accepted industry practice.” Facebook will pay $5 million to settle the suits.
As part of the settlement, Facebook will make changes to its advertising systems. It plans to launch a separate portal for placing housing, employment and credit ads. Advertisers will have significantly fewer targeting options, and won’t be able to target ads by gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion or zip code. Advertisers for other products and services, though, will still be able to use the original portal and target ads using these criteria. In addition, Facebook will create a new page where users can search for housing-related ads that do not show up on their news feeds. Finally, Facebook will add more certification and education requirements for staff on preventing discrimination worldwide. It will also require advertisers to certify that they are in compliance with anti-discrimination laws.
Facebook’s reach is enormous, with 2 billion users globally. Many rely on it to stay in touch with loved ones, share our photos and express our opinions about issues large and small. Many people also use Facebook to seek jobs, get credit and find affordable housing for their families. Until recently, social media has faced very little scrutiny and regulation. When a platform with such sweeping reach can keep low-income renters from finding a decent home, its discriminatory effects can be enormous. It is well past time for the federal government to step in and make sure that Facebook and other social media outlets follow the same civil rights laws as everyone else.