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HUD accuses Facebook of enabling housing discrimination

Alleges that social media goliath makes it easier to discriminate

Facebook allows landlords and property owners to discriminate against prospective renters and buyers based on their race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, disability, or other factors, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said Friday.

After months of investigations into Facebook’s ad practices, HUD officially filed a housing discrimination complaint against the social media giant, alleging that the site allows advertisers to purposefully exclude certain people from seeing housing ads based on a number of factors that violate the Fair Housing Act.

According to HUD, Facebook allows advertisers to control which users receive housing-related ads based upon the person’s race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, disability, and/or ZIP code. 

HUD claims that Facebook then “invites advertisers to express unlawful preferences by offering discriminatory options, allowing them to effectively limit housing options for these protected classes under the guise of ‘targeted advertising.’”

HUD claims that these actions are a violation of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing transactions including print and online advertisement on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or familial status. 

“The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination including those who might limit or deny housing options with a click of a mouse,” said Anna María Farías, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. “When Facebook uses the vast amount of personal data it collects to help advertisers to discriminate, it’s the same as slamming the door in someone’s face.”

According to HUD’s complaint, Facebook allows for advertisers to violate the Fair Housing Act in the following ways:

  • Display housing ads either only to men or women
  • Not show ads to Facebook users interested in an “assistance dog,” “mobility scooter,” “accessibility” or “deaf culture”
  • Not show ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in “child care” or “parenting,” or show ads only to users with children above a specified age
  • To display/not display ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in a particular place of worship, religion or tenet, such as the “Christian Church,” “Sikhism,” “Hinduism,” or the “Bible”
  • Not show ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in “Latin America,” “Canada,” “Southeast Asia,” “China,” “Honduras,” or “Somalia”
  • Draw a red line around ZIP codes and then not display ads to Facebook users who live in specific ZIP codes

Additionally, the HUD complaint alleged that Facebook promotes its housing advertising targeting platform with “success stories” for finding “the perfect homeowners,” “reaching home buyers,” “attracting renters” and “personalizing property ads.”

In a statement provided to HousingWire, Facebook said that it does not allow discrimination on its site and will continue to work with HUD on the matter.

“There is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it’s strictly prohibited in our policies,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “Over the past year we’ve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse. We’re aware of the statement of interest filed and will respond in court; and we’ll continue working directly with HUD to address their concerns.”

HUD also stated that the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York filed a statement of interest relating to this case, which HUD joined, on behalf of a number of private litigants that are challenging Facebook’s advertising platform.

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.

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.

This complaint is a “Secretary-Initiated Complaint,” which are fair housing complaints filed directly against those whom HUD believes may be in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

HUD notes that the complaint is not a determination of liability.    

According to HUD, a formal fact-finding investigation will commence next. Facebook will be given a chance to respond to the complaint, but HUD may still file a formal discrimination charge at a later date.

To read the complaint against HUD, which is addressed directly to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, click here.

(Photo credit: gmstockstudio / Shutterstock.com)

[Update 1: This article is updated with a statement from Facebook.]

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