HUD Sues Facebook Over Housing Discrimination Allegations
March 29, 2019
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is suing Facebook over allegations that it violated the Fair Housing Act by allegedly restricting certain protected classes from viewing housing-related ads online. HUD alleges in the lawsuit that housing-related ads and services were “severely biased” by limiting views of housing-related ads to tens of thousands of users based on gender, ethnicity, religion, and other factors.
“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” says 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.”
On March 19, Facebook announced several changes to remove features on its ad targeting features that had been under fire for claims over apparent discrimination. In that announcement, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said, “Advertisers offering housing, employment, and credit opportunities will have a much smaller set of targeting categories to use in their campaigns overall. Multicultural affinity targeting will continue to be unavailable for these ads. Additionally, any detailed targeting options describing or appearing to relate to protected classes will also be unavailable.” (Read more: Facebook DIsables Targeting Options for Housing Ads)
Since its move, Facebook has required advertisers in the areas of housing, employment, and credit to use a separate portal to serve up their ads. The portal does not include gender, age, race, ethnicity, or religion as ad targeting options.
But HUD moved forward in its lawsuit against Facebook this week. In the lawsuit, HUD alleges Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude certain classes from seeing some housing-related Facebook ads, such as by allowing ads to classify groups as parents; non-American born; non-Christian; interested in Hispanic culture; or other protected groups under the Fair Housing Act. HUD also says Facebook permitted advertisers to exclude certain groups of people by drawing a red line around neighborhoods on a map.
Facebook uses prediction analytics that also causes it to exclude protected classes from seeing certain ads, HUD alleges in the lawsuit. Facebook combines data it collects on user attributes and behavior with data about user behavior on other websites to target its ads to certain groups, the lawsuit states.
“Even as we confront new technologies, the fair housing laws enacted over half a century ago remain clear—discrimination in housing-related advertising is against the law,” says HUD General Counsel Paul Compton. “Just because a process to deliver advertising is opaque and complex doesn’t mean that it exempts Facebook and others from our scrutiny and the law of the land. Fashioning appropriate remedies and the rules of the road for today’s technology as it impacts housing are a priority for HUD.” Read more: Housing Discrimination Via Algorithms: An Alarming Trend
“Housing Department Charges Facebook With Discrimination,” Forbes.com (March 28, 2019) and “HUD Sues Facebook Over Housing Discrimination,” Mortgage News Daily (March 28, 2019)
Updated: May 29, 2020