In a formal complaint filed on Friday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) accused Facebook of allowing landlords and homeowners to use targeted Facebook ads to discriminate against potential tenants and buyers based on race, color, religion, familial status, sex, national origin and disability. HUD alleged Facebook’s “targeted advertising” limits housing options for individuals protected by the Fair Housing Act.
According to the complaint, the agency alleged Facebook’s platform allows advertisers to:
- Single out either men or women in housing-related marketing
- Enable ad blocking for users categorized by Facebook as interested in disability-related content such as “assistance dog,” “mobility scooter,” “accessibility” or “deaf culture”
- Market to or block ads for residents of specific zip codes
- Choose to promote to or neglect users categorized by Facebook as interested in specific religions or places of worship, such as “Christian Church,” “Sikhism,” “Hinduism” or the “Bible”
- Block ads to users categorized by Facebook as interested in “Latin America,” “Canada,” “Southeast Asia,” “China,” “Honduras” or “Somalia”
- Enable ad blocking for users categorized by Facebook as interested in “child care” or parenting,” as well as single out recipients with children above a certain age
“Facebook mines extensive user data and classifies its users based on protected characteristics,” according to the complaint. “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 the users’ actual or imputed protected traits.”
“The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination, including those who might limit or deny housing options with a click of a mouse,” said Anna María Farías, HUD’s assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, in a statement. “When Facebook uses the vast amount of personal data it collects to help advertisers to discriminate, it’s the same as slamming the door in someone’s face.”
NAR President Elizabeth Mendenhall issued the following statement in support of HUD’s aggressive enforcement of the Fair Housing Act:
“In 2018, as America recognizes the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, the National Association of Realtors® strongly supports a housing market free from all types of discrimination, said Mendenhall, a sixth-generation Realtor® from Columbia, Missouri and CEO of RE/MAX Boone Realty. “However, as various online tools and platforms continue to transform the real estate industry in the 21st Century, our understanding of how this law is enforced and applied must continue to evolve as well. Realtors® commend the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Secretary Ben Carson for taking decisive action to defend fair housing laws, and for working to ensure its intended consumer protections extend to wherever real estate is marketed.”
In March, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) and other housing groups filed a lawsuit against Facebook also alleging discrimination through its advertising platform. On Friday, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York filed a statement of interest, which allows that lawsuit to continue.
Of both actions, Facebook issued a statement: “There is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it’s strictly prohibited in our policies. 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; we’ll continue working directly with HUD to address their concerns.”
Stay tuned to RISMedia for more developments.