Facebook Ads Are Being Probed for Housing Discrimination

July 9, 2019

Facebook has been facing federal agencies that claim it has allowed real estate companies to discriminate against users when displaying ads, but now New York is launching its own investigation into these accusations.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he’s ordered the New York Department of Financial Services to investigate whether Facebook permitted state-regulated advertisers serving housing ads on its site to discriminate against prospective residents from protected classes.

Cuomo cited reports that accused Facebook of allowing housing advertisers to block or limit ads using ZIP code information that could exclude certain consumers based on race, national origin, religion, familial status, sex, and disability.

“The allegations against Facebook advertisers are extremely troubling and fly in the face of everything that New York stands for,” Cuomo said in a statement. “I am calling on the Department of Financial Services to investigate these claims and help ensure that New Yorkers seeking housing for themselves and their families are not discriminated against in any way. We will take aggressive action and ensure that those who are behind these reprehensible alleged practices are held fully accountable.”

Facebook is already facing a probe from federal officials and fair housing and civil rights groups. Last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development accused the social media giant of allowing property owners to discriminate against protected classes listed within the Fair Housing Act through its advertising tool. Facebook removed more than 5,000 ad target options in response.

In March, HUD still sued Facebook, accusing it of violating the Fair Housing Act with its ad tool.

“Our ad tools help businesses reach people all over the world and we need to make sure they aren’t misused,” notes Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, in a civil rights audit document at its site. “In March 2019, we announced historic settlement agreements with leading civil rights organizations to change how U.S. housing, employment, and credit ads are run on Facebook. Our policies have always prohibited advertisers from using our tools to discriminate. In 2018, we went further by removing thousands of categories from targeting related to protected classes such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion. But we can do better.”

Sandberg noted that Facebook will be rolling out updates so that anyone who wants to run U.S. housing, employment, or credit ads will no longer be allowed to target by age, gender, or ZIP code and will have a “much smaller set of targeting categories overall.”

“We’re building ways to make sure advertisers follow these rules with plans for full enforcement by the end of the year,” she notes. “We will also have a tool where you can search for and view current U.S. housing ads by advertiser and location, regardless of whether the ads are shown to you.”