HUD Sues Facebook For Violating Fair Housing Rules With Targeted Ads

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson Carlos Osorio/AP

Facebook’s ad system allowed companies to target users based on a number of protected classes, including race, sex, nationality and general interests.

The Housing and Urban Development Department filed charges against social media giant Facebook claiming the platform enabled advertisers to discriminate against who could see certain real estate ads.

The wealth of data people share online enables targeted advertising that shows users products and services they are most likely to be interested in. But that targeting can result in discrimination, particularly when used to push perspective tenets and homeowners toward specific locations, solidifying divides along race, class and other protected categories.

According to the complaint, filed with an administrative law judge Thursday, Facebook’s ad system allowed real estate advertisers to target—or avoid—specific groups, all of which are protected under the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits advocating for or dissuading people from renting or purchasing in specific areas. HUD’s suit charges that Facebook advertisers were able to select which users would see their ads based on geography, marriage and parental status, nationality and religion, as well as their interests.

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

The suit is the culmination of an investigation that began in August, initiated by Carson’s office.

“Because of the way [Facebook] designed its advertising platform, ads for housing and housing related services are shown to large audiences that are severely biased based on characteristics protected by the [Fair Housing] Act, such as audiences of tens of thousands of users that are nearly all men or nearly all women,” the charges state.

“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.”

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. But the company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg posted a blog March 19 outlining actions the platform is currently undertaking.

“Our policies already prohibit advertisers from using our tools to discriminate,” she wrote. “We’ve removed thousands of categories from targeting related to protected classes such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion. But we can do better.”

Sandberg said the platform no longer allows advertisers to target ads by age, gender or zip code, as well as “any detailed targeting option describing or appearing to relate to protected classes.” Facebook is also rolling out a tool to search through real estate ads and listings, regardless of which ads are being directed toward the user.

These changes are a direct result of lawsuits filed against the company last year by the National Fair Housing Alliance, American Civil Liberties Union and Communication Workers of America, among others.