HUD Charges Facebook with Fair Housing Act Violations

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says the social media company allowed housing-related ads to exclude or target people based on “ethnic affinities,” a practice that violates fair housing law.

by Levi Sumagaysay, The Mercury News / March 29, 2019
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(TNS) — After investigating a complaint it filed against Facebook last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Thursday charged the Silicon Valley company with violating the Fair Housing Act, saying it enabled unlawful discrimination by limiting who could see housing-related ads online.

Three years ago, the world’s largest social network was found to have been allowing advertisers to exclude targets by “ethnic affinities,” after investigative news organization ProPublica reported that it was able to buy ads that could not be seen by Facebook users with African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic ethnic affinities in the United States.

At the time, Facebook referred to the practice as “multicultural advertising” and said it did not consider ethnic affinity to necessarily mean race because it was based on the posts and pages users liked. The company also defended micro-targeting — being able to include and exclude certain groups in targeting advertising — which is key to its lucrative business.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination by race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, sex and disability.

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

HUD’s charge against Facebook comes a week after the tech giant reached a settlement that Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg called “historic” with civil rights groups and others who had accused the company of enabling discrimination in housing, employment and credit advertising. Under that deal, Facebook agreed to create a separate portal for housing, employment and credit ads that will have limited targeting options. The five lawsuits and complaints covered by the settlement were filed from 2016 to 2018 and relate to discrimination by age and sex in employment ads; by race and national origin in employment, housing and credit ads; and more.

Facebook also settled with Washington state’s attorney general last year, saying it would no longer let advertisers exclude targets by race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation and other protected characteristics.

“The case against Facebook is an invitation to fundamentally reassess the business model that facilitates and encourages these practices across way too many online platforms,” said Gaurav Laroia, policy counsel for Free Press, an advocacy group that focuses on media and technology, in a statement Thursday.

Citing unnamed sources, the Washington Post reported Thursday that HUD is also reviewing the ad practices of Google and Twitter as part of a housing discrimination investigation. HUD has not returned a request for comment.

Facebook did not return a request for comment Thursday about the HUD charges, which will be heard by an administrative law judge and could result in damages and fines.

In its fourth quarter ended Dec. 31, 2018, Facebook reported $16.91 billion in revenue, $16.64 billion of which came from advertising.

©2019 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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