he U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development today filed charges against Facebook for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act by encouraging, enabling and causing housing discrimination through the tech giant’s advertising platform.
HUD claims Facebook discriminates against users by restricting who can view housing-related ads on Facebook’s platforms and across the internet. The complaint also charges that Facebook mines extensive data about its users and then uses the data to determine which of its users view housing-related ads based on these protected characteristics.
“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”
The announcement comes on the heels of Facebook pledging to do more to protect users from discrimination on its site. On March 19, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, announced in a blog post that changes “will better protect people on Facebook.”
Sandberg stated: “Advertisers offering housing, employment and credit opportunities will have a much smaller set of targeting categories to use in their campaigns overall. Multicultural affinity targeting will continue to be unavailable for these ads. Additionally, any detailed targeting option describing or appearing to relate to protected classes will also be unavailable.”
In a new blog post today announcing a better way to learn about ads on Facebook, product manager Satwik Shukla said the company is updating its archives to make it easier to learn about all Facebook ads and the pages that run them.
“We’re committed to creating a new standard of transparency and authenticity for advertising,” said Shukla, adding: “By the end of June, we’ll roll out transparency tools for political or issue ads around the world.”
HUD claims Facebook enabled advertisers to exclude people whom Facebook classified as parents; non-American-born; non-Christian; interested in accessibility; interested in Hispanic culture; or a wide variety of other interests that closely align with the Fair Housing Act’s protected classes. HUD also accuses Facebook of allowing advertisers to exclude people based on their neighborhood by drawing a red line around those neighborhoods on a map.
HUD’s charge also asserts that Facebook “uses the protected characteristics of people to determine who will view ads regardless of whether an advertiser wants to reach a broad or narrow audience. HUD claims Facebook combines data it collects about user attributes and behavior with data it obtains about user behavior on other websites and in the non-digital world.
Facebook then allegedly uses machine learning and other prediction techniques to classify and group users to project each user’s likely response to a given ad, and in doing so, may recreate groupings defined by their protected class.”
The charge concludes that by grouping users who have similar attributes and behaviors (unrelated to housing) and presuming a shared interest or disinterest in housing-related advertisements, Facebook’s mechanisms function just like an advertiser who intentionally targets or excludes users based on their protected class.
“Even as we confront new technologies, the fair housing laws enacted over half a century ago remain clear—discrimination in housing-related advertising is against the law,” said HUD General Counsel Paul Compton. “Just because a process to deliver advertising is opaque and complex doesn’t mean that it exempts Facebook and others from our scrutiny and the law of the land. Fashioning appropriate remedies and the rules of the road for today’s technology as it impacts housing are a priority for HUD.”