Real Estate

HUD investigates Facebook (again) over housing discrimination ads

New information comes to light

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development halted its investigation into fair housing violations within Facebook ads, but now, that investigation has been reopened.

“Secretary Carson has directed HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity to re-open its investigation into Facebook’s advertising practices,” HUD told HousingWire. “Since our initial investigation, we have learned more about these practices that warrant a deeper level of scrutiny. At this point, we are resuming an investigation and have made no findings in this matter.”

The investigation began in response to a ProPublica article in October 2016, which said Facebook gave advertisers the ability to exclude certain ethnic groups from seeing the ads.

However, HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s aides ordered housing division officails to cancel their planned negating session with Facebook executives, according to an article by Glenn Thrush for The New York Times.

From the article:

Then, after taking office, Ms. Farías sent a one-page letter to Facebook ordering, without explanation, the termination of a preliminary investigation into the company’s advertising practices.

HUD Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity division head Anna Maria Farías ordered around six fair housing investigations halted after coming in to her new position, the article pointed out.

Fair housing groups later filed a lawsuit against Facebook in March this year, saying its ads still discriminate against protected groups under the Fair Housing Act including women, veterans with disabilities and single mothers.

But now, HUD says it is reopening the case due to new information that has come to light after studying Facebook’s case.

“Some of the suits that were being pursued – we didn’t have time to study them, so we wanted to really pull them back and have a chance to study them,” Carson said before the Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies Subcommittee on Wednesday. “And we have actually reopened the Facebook case after having an opportunity to study it.”

While Carson didn’t offer much in the way of an explanation for HUD once again opening the investigation, he explained that while studying the case, the department uncovered new, concerning facts.

“We were very concerned when we began to uncover the facts,” Carson said during the hearing.

Watch the full exchange between Carson and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the video below.

Facebook continues to work with HUD on the investigation, and explained discrimination of any form has no place on its platform. 

“There is no place for discrimination on our platform,” a Facebook spokesperson told HousingWire. “It is explicitly forbidden in our ads policies and it also violates our principles.  Over the past year we've strengthened our ads products to further protect against potential misuse.”

“This includes removing thousands of categories, like multicultural affinity segments, from our exclusion targeting tools,” the spokesperson continued. “We’ve also improved our certification systems, which requires advertisers to certify that they are complying with our anti-discrimination policies and all applicable anti-discrimination laws when running ads for housing, employment or credit opportunities on Facebook. These systems reject thousands of such ads per day; if the business declines to certify their compliance, the ad is rejected.”

HUD recently came under fire as last month, word began to leak out that Carson was considering changing HUD’s mission statement as part of an effort to “align HUD’s mission with the secretary’s priorities and that of the administration.”

HUD’s proposed new mission statement is shorter, cutting the current statement from 63 words to 23 words, and several notable observers expressed concern that removing certain words from the mission statement could telegraph a change to HUD’s mission.

Among other things, the change would remove the phrase “free from discrimination” from its mission statement, which many feared reflected HUD’s lack of focus on housing discrimination. However, Carson quickly dismissed this thinking, saying “nothing could be further from the truth.”

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