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Meta to Change Ad Technology as Part of Settled DOJ Lawsuit

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, has discriminated against users by restricting who can view housing ads based on certain demographics. Now, the company is in the process of fixing it.

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Last Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Meta, accusing the tech conglomerate of discriminating against Facebook users by restricting who can view housing ads based on certain demographics. The groups settled the lawsuit the same day, with Meta agreeing to change its ad technology.

According to the settlement agreement, Meta will have to pay $115,054 for blocking individuals based on race, gender and ZIP code identifiers. The company also said it would stop using its current “Special Ad Audience tool” and develop a new system over the next six months to address racial and other disparities.

A statement from the Justice Department explained that the suit was inspired by findings from a 2019 investigation carried out by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) into Facebook’s ad delivery system.

More specifically, the investigation found that Facebook allowed housing advertisers to exclude users from receiving housing-related ads through targeting options that referenced Federal Housing Administration protected characteristics. It also found Facebook’s machine learning algorithm excluded users from receiving housing-related ads, despite advertisers seeking to target diverse groups of Facebook users.

Not long after HUD shared these results, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York conducted its own investigation, yielding similar results. However, in New York’s case, it was found that ads were “steered disproportionately to white users and away from Black users, and vice versa,” according to the DOJ statement.

Based on these results, Damian Williams, a U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said: “Meta will — for the first time — change its ad delivery system to address algorithmic discrimination. But if Meta fails to demonstrate that it has sufficiently changed its delivery system to guard against algorithmic bias, this office will proceed with the litigation.”

Furthermore, Meta might have to answer to the DOJ if the new system does not meet the standards laid out in the settlement agreement.

“If the United States concludes that the new system adequately addresses the discriminatory delivery of housing ads, then Meta will implement the system, which will be subject to Department of Justice approval and court oversight,” according to a DOJ statement.

“If the United States concludes that the new system is insufficient to address algorithmic discrimination in the delivery of housing ads, then the settlement agreement will be terminated,” the statement goes on to say.