Facebook Accused of Allowing Discrimination in Housing Ads

March 28, 2018

Several fair housing organizations sued Facebook on Tuesday, accusing the social media giant of allowing landlords and brokers to discriminate based on gender and family status on its advertising platform. They argue that advertisers could use the personal data of Facebook users to then target ads that could exclude certain populations from viewing them.

The National Fair Housing Alliance and three other housing groups filed the lawsuit, alleging that Facebook’s advertising platform violates the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination “based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin” on home sale and rental advertisements.

The housing groups that are suing Facebook say they created a fake real estate firm and submitted dozens of housing advertisements to Facebook for review to show that advertisers could exclude users based on their gender, family status, and whether they were interested in “disabled parking permits.”

“Facebook enables a real estate company or landlord to discriminate by selectively targeting housing advertisements to exclude specific populations,” Fred Freiberg, executive director of the New York-based Fair Housing Justice Center, which is also part of the lawsuit, said in a statement. “Facebook’s platform is the virtual equivalent of posting a ‘For Rent’ sign that says ‘no families with young kids’ or ‘no women,’ but it does so in an insidious and stealthy manner so that people have no clue they have been excluded on the basis of family status or sex.”

Facebook has denied any wrongdoing. A Facebook spokesperson told CNN, “There is absolutely no place for discrimination on Facebook. We believe this lawsuit is without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously. … We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.” 

The National Fair Housing Alliance says Facebook has been repeatedly warned about its advertising practices over the years. For example, a customization option called “Ethnic Affinities” faced criticism from housing advocates in 2016 because it allowed advertisers to target or exclude specific groups for ads that appear on Facebook.

“Facebook has known for years that its advertising platform violates civil rights laws, but it has refused to change its ways on a voluntary basis,” Diane L. Houk, one of the attorneys representing the housing groups, said in a statement. “Facebook is not above the law and must answer these civil rights claims in court.” 

Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence Inc. in Miami and the Fair Housing Council of Greater San Antonio are also plaintiffs listed on the lawsuit.

Facebook boasts more than 2 billion active users. The lawsuit comes at a time when Facebook is dealing with fallout from Cambridge Analytica and accusations that it mishandled the data of some 50 million users.

Source: National Fair Housing Alliance and “Facebook Sued for Allegedly Allowing Housing Discrimination,” CNNMoney (March 27, 2018)