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HUD sues Facebook over housing discrimination

“Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face”

The Facebook logo surrounded by thumbs down icons. Photo by TY Lim

On Thursday, the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced plans to sue Facebook, alleging that the Silicon Valley powerhouse violated the national Fair Housing Act “by encouraging, enabling, and causing housing discrimination through the company’s advertising platform.”

HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement that “Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” and that “using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”

In the complaint titled The Secretary, United States Department of Housing and Urban Development etc. v Facebook Inc, HUD’s assistant general counsels for fair housing allege that the Menlo Park-based social network illegally discriminates through targeted ads:

Respondent collects millions of data points about its users, draws inferences about each user based on this data, and then charges advertisers for the ability to microtarget ads to users based on Respondent’s inferences about them. These ads are then shown to users across the web and in mobile applications.

[...] Respondent has offered advertisers hundreds of thousands of attributes from which to choose, for example to exclude “women in the workforce,” “moms of grade school kids,” “foreigners,” “Puerto Rico Islanders,” or people interested in “parenting,” “accessibility,” “service animal,” “Hijab Fashion,” or “Hispanic Culture.”

According to HUD lawyers, by helping advertisers direct housing ads away from certain users based on factors related to “race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, sex, and disability,” Facebook is in violation of federal housing laws.

HUD originally complained about Facebook’s housing ads in August 2018.

In a statement issued Thursday, Facebook spokespersons said the company is “surprised” by the suit:

We’ve been working with [HUD] to address their concerns and have taken significant steps to prevent ads discrimination. Last year we eliminated thousands of targeting options that could potentially be misused, and just last week we reached historic agreements with the National Fair Housing Alliance, ACLU, and others that change the way housing, credit, and employment ads can be run on Facebook.

[...] We’re disappointed by today’s developments, but we’ll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups sued Facebook over its housing ads in 2018.

Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg announced last week that the company removed some ad categories as part of a settlement, while still insisting that “our policies already prohibit advertisers from using our tools to discriminate.”

Apparently that was not enough to satisfy HUD.

Enacted in 1968, the Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords, realtors, leasing agents, and parties offering housing loans from refusing to offer housing to potential renters and buyers on the grounds of race, religion, sex, or other protected categories.