Facebook has made headlines this past year for multiple platform changes, such as a modification of its algorithm to prioritize local news and a new system for rental listings within its Marketplace storefront. Now, the company is under fire for possibly violating the Fair Housing Act, which does not allow bias against color, religion, handicap, familial status or national origin in relation to housing.
Four housing groups, including the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), filed a lawsuit last week against the social media giant, alleging Facebook’s advertising platform is discriminatory in nature for allowing the exclusion of families with children, women and other protected classes.
“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,” said Diane L. Houk, one of the attorneys representing the groups, in a statement. “Facebook is not above the law and must answer these civil rights claims in court.”
The lawsuit alleges that Facebook allows advertisers to customize their audience by choosing keywords from a preset list of characteristics, many of which are protected by the Fair Housing Act. For example, advertisers could choose to target only men with rental or home-sale ads, excluding women from the promotional push.
To test Facebook’s ad system, filers of the lawsuit created a sample real estate firm and submitted housing advertisements for review. Through this process, the housing groups found they were able to exclude specific groups from receiving the ads, such as families with children and moms with children of a certain age. Additionally, an “interests” category included exclusion keywords based on disability and national origin, such as “disabled veterans” and “English as a second language.”
Facebook has denied the allegations and says it will fight the lawsuit.
“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,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.
The lawsuit is being introduced at a controversial time for Facebook, which has an audience of over 2 million individuals monthly. Facebook is currently embroiled in the aftermath of its misuse of private user data, which it sold to Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm hired by President Trump’s 2016 election campaign.
“Amid growing public concern in the past weeks that Facebook has mishandled users’ data, our investigation shows that Facebook also allows and even encourages its paid advertisers to discriminate using its vast trove of personal data,” said Lisa Rice, NFHA’s president and CEO, in a statement.
“Facebook’s use and abuse of user data for discriminatory purposes needs to stop. It is already a challenge for women, families with children, people with disabilities and other under-served groups to find housing. Facebook’s platform that excludes these consumers from ever seeing certain ads to rent or buy housing must be changed immediately. Facebook ought to be opening doors to housing opportunities instead of closing them,” Rice added.
Stay tuned to RISMedia for more developments.