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Update: The HUD Discrimination Case Against Facebook

Update

In response to HUD’s complaint, Facebook will be cutting some 5,000 ad targeting options to avoid claims of discrimination. In a public statement Tuesday, Facebook said, “While these options have been used in legitimate ways to reach people interested in a certain product or service, we think minimizing the risk of abuse is more important. This includes limiting the ability for advertisers to exclude audiences that relate to attributes such as ethnicity or religion.”

The Original Complaint

According to a recent HUD complaint, Facebook unlawfully discriminates by enabling advertisers to restrict which Facebook users receive housing-related ads based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability. Facebook mines extensive user data and classifies its users based on protected characteristics. Facebook’s ad targeting tools then invite advertisers to express unlawful preferences by suggesting discriminatory options, and Facebook effectuates the delivery of housing-related ads to certain users and not others based on those users’ actual or imputed protected traits.

As of July 24, 2018, Facebook’s ad targeting tools enable advertisers of housing and housing-related services to discriminate in the following non-exhaustive list of ways:

  • Facebook enables advertisers to discriminate based on sex by showing ads only to men.
  • Facebook enables advertisers to discriminate based on disability by not showing ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in “assistance dog,” “mobility scooter,” “accessibility” or “deaf culture.”
  • Facebook enables advertisers to discriminate based on familial status by not showing ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in “child care” or “parenting,” or by showing ads only to users with children above a specified age.
  • Facebook enables advertisers to discriminate based on religion by showing ads only to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in the “Christian Church,” “Jesus,” “Christ” or the “Bible.”
  • Facebook enables advertisers to discriminate based on national origin by not showing ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in “Latin America,” “Southeast Asia,” “China,” “Honduras,” “Somalia,” the “Hispanic National Bar Association” or “Mundo.”
  • Facebook enables advertisers to discriminate based on race and color by drawing a red line around majority-minority zip codes and not showing ads to users who live in those zip.

Facebook markets its ad targeting platform as a useful tool for providers of housing­ related services. For example, Facebook promotes its ad targeting platform with “success stories” for finding “the perfect homeowners,” “reaching home buyers,” “attracting renters” and “personalizing property ads.” See www.facebook.com/business/success/ quadrant-homes (visited Aug. 8, 2018); www.facebook.com/business/success/homesnap (visited Aug. 8, 2018); www.facebook.com/business/success/apartment-list (visited Aug. 8, 2018).

The alleged policies and practices of Facebook violate the Fair Housing Act based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability.

According to Housingwire.com, Facebook responded saying that discrimination is not allowed on its site and that it plans to respond to HUD’s allegations in court.

“There is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it’s strictly prohibited in our policies,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement provided to HousingWire. “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.”

The next step in the process is a formal investigation, after which HUD may decide to file a formal charge of discrimination against the site.

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