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HUD charges Facebook with housing discrimination over targeted ads

Alleges social media giant enabled advertisers to discriminate based on protected traits

The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Thursday that it has charged Facebook with violating the Fair Housing Act by enabling advertisers to choose who could view their ads on the social media site.

According to HUD, the social media giant enabled real estate companies to unlawfully discriminate against users by choosing who could view their ads based on race, nationality, religion, color, familial status, sex and disability.

Specifically, HUD alleges that Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude users classified by characteristics like whether they were parents, non-U.S. citizens and non-Christian, as well as those flagged for their interest in Hispanic culture and accessibility.

Advertisers could also target based on gender, showing specific ads only to men or only to women, and could cross out neighborhoods they wanted to exclude on a map.

And it doesn’t stop there.

According to HUD, Facebook mines extensive user data from its own site and combines this with data collected from other sites, using “machine learning and other prediction techniques” to classify users in order to project their likely response to a specific ad.

In doing so, HUD said the company could create groupings defined by their protected class, assuming this group shared either an interest or disinterest in housing-related ads, and then use this information to enable advertisers to enhance their targeting.

The charges follow a complaint that was filed by the department in August in response to a ProPublica article that revealed Facebook was giving advertisers the ability to exclude certain ethnic groups from seeing ads.

The complaint prompted Facebook to remove 5,000 ad target options to “help prevent misuse,” but that didn’t satisfy a number of fair housing and civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, who proceeded to file a lawsuit against the company for discriminating against protected groups.

That lawsuit was settled last week, and as part of that settlement, Facebook announced it was instituting massive changes to its ad platform to disable functions that allowed for discrimination.

But that wasn’t enough for HUD, which said it aims to “obtain appropriate relief for the harm Facebook caused and continues to cause.” 

“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.” 

HUD General Counsel Paul Compton added that despite new technology, century-old fair housing laws still stand, and discrimination in housing-related advertising is against the law.

“Just because a process to deliver advertising is opaque and complex doesn’t mean that it’s [sic] exempts Facebook and others from our scrutiny and the law of the land,” Compton said. “Fashioning appropriate remedies and the rules of the road for today’s technology as it impacts housing are a priority for HUD.”

HUD said the case will be heard by a federal administrative law judge or a federal district judge, as the charges are civil rather than criminal.

If Facebook is found in the wrong, it may have to pony up a good deal of cash for damages and fines.

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