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On March 28th, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) charged Facebook with violating the Fair Housing Act. HUD, which is overseen by Trump appointee Ben Carson, claimed that not all Facebook users can see housing-related ads hosted on the platform. In a statement, Carson said that Facebook is hiding ads from some people — and showing them to others — based on their location and who they are. The language of the Fair Housing Act bans all discrimination in housing-related advertisements, whether digital or printed.
The history of HUD’s allegations against Facebook can be traced back to last August, when the department filed a formal complaint — not yet a charge, as delivered yesterday — against the company. In this complaint, HUD claimed that Facebook enables landlords or people looking to sell homes to display ads to only certain users based on religion, race, sex, disability, and other traits.
HUD’s August complaint was not the first allegation of ad discrimination levied at Facebook. In March 2018, the National Fair Housing Alliance filed a federal lawsuit accusing Facebook of exactly the same practices for which HUD is charging the platform. In that lawsuit, the National Fair Housing Alliance focused on discrimination based on users’ gender and family status. The HUD complaint and subsequent charges vastly broaden the categories in which Facebook is accused of unfair practices.
Upon the National Fair Housing Alliance’s initial lawsuit, Facebook insisted that the allegations against it were “without merit.” Upon receiving the August complaint, Facebook issued a stronger statement insisting that the platform has stern, serious rules in place against discrimination. The company further stated it intended to work with HUD to resolve the problems leading to the complaint. However, yesterday’s charges might suggest that HUD has been unsatisfied with Facebook’s attempts to collaborate on solutions.
Although the past year has been especially tumultuous for Facebook as ad-based housing discrimination goes, the issue became a public concern over two years ago. In late 2016, ProPublica reported that Facebook allows advertisers to hide ads from marginalized races. For its investigation, ProPublica went through the process of purchasing a Facebook ad and took screenshots along the way. One especially damning screenshot explicitly shows the section in which ad buyers can choose to hide their ads from certain races. ProPublica shared its findings with leading civil rights attorney John Relman, who spared no words in labeling Facebook’s ad practices unquestionable Fair Housing Act violations.
Despite Facebook’s sordid history of enabling discrimination in ads, the company has taken actions to improve its practices. Around the time of the initial HUD complaint, Facebook eliminated 5,000 ad targeting options, which included the ability to exclude specified religions and ethnicities. Just weeks ago, the platform also removed age, gender, and zip code from its list of data through which advertisers could target Facebook users.
HUD’s charges against Facebook, no matter their merit, do represent one especially remarkable milestone. HUD’s charges yesterday represent the first federal discrimination lawsuit concerned with racial bias in targeted advertising. In a statement, HUD General Counsel Paul Compton said that fair housing laws haven’t changed, but the role that social media plays has.