HUD Accuses Facebook of Enabling Housing Discrimination Through Ads

The Department of Housing and Urban Development late last week filed a formal housing discrimination complaint against Facebook, accusing the social networking giant of allowing companies to exclude certain groups of people from seeing their advertisements.

HUD says Facebook violated the Fair Housing Act when it gave advertisers a host of filtering options based on multiple demographic markers. For instance, landlords or mortgage companies could elect not to show their ads to residents in certain ZIP codes, or those who expressed interest in religious topics. Additionally, according to HUD, companies could choose to prevent people classified as showing interest in specific racial or ethnic groups — including “Latin America,” “China,” and “Somalia” — from viewing their content.

“The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination, including those who might limit or deny housing options with a click of a mouse,” Anna María Farías, HUD’s assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, said in a Friday statement announcing the move. “When Facebook uses the vast amount of personal data it collects to help advertisers to discriminate, it’s the same as slamming the door in someone’s face.”

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At the same time, HUD noted that Facebook promotes its platform as ideal for housing-related companies. Under the Fair Housing Act, however, firms cannot discriminate against people based on race, religion, gender, or family status in any dealings related to housing transactions, including print and digital ads.

The move comes as Facebook has become a go-to social networking service for older Americans. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center finding that 65% of adults between the ages of 50 and 64 use the platform, as well as 41% of Americans aged 65 and older. For comparison, just 10% of 65-and-older survey respondents said they used Instagram, with 3% for Snapchat and 8% for Twitter.

The United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York also supported HUD’s action, filing a statement of interest in district court; Facebook faces several private lawsuits over issues with its advertising platform.

HUD’s action takes the form of a “Secretary-Initiated Complaint,” under which the department will conduct an investigation and potentially file a formal discrimination charge.

“Throughout the process, HUD will seek conciliation and voluntary resolution,” the department noted. “Charges may be resolved through settlement, through referral to the Department of Justice, or through an administrative determination.”

Read the full complaint on HUD’s website.

Written by Alex Spanko

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  • If the real estate industry is the primary industry or group of individuals using these demographic markers, the criticism is more than warranted but along with that those using Facebook as a means of advertising are at least as guilty by selecting these markers and thus should also be investigated. For Facebook this a principle issue but for real estate related advertisers, a matter of practice.

  • So it looks like they want to ban any kind of marketing that would be of interest to people who would have an interest in the product or the means to buy the product. Target marketing is efficient marketing. Why should a business be forced to market to everyone, even those who would never have an interest in the product, or the ability to buy. So sick of over-regulation. There is nothing I have ever seen in Facebook’s metrics that enables a marketer to exclude people of any race. If I am marketing reverse mortgages, for instance…wouldn’t it stand to reason that I am marketing to people of a certain age group, in areas with certain home values? If I am a realtor working looking for listings in a certain area, wouldnt it stand to reason that I might want to target certain zip codes?

    • R K,

      For the sake of public policy and beating down discrimination, anything that LENDS itself to illegalities should be discouraged in any way it can. This is one.

      Yes, some will be hurt and it goes against efficient markets but that is the price for being involved in an industry where discrimination has been so grossly abused in its not so distant history.

      • So go after people who discriminate. The logic of this is the same as outlawing cars because some people speed…or outlawing guns because some people use them to kill. Punish the many for the crimes of the few.

      • R K,

        This is more like the bookie. The only way to stop illegal gambling is by going after the provider, not the user. The best way to stop terrorists is to go after the terrorists, not their victims.

        This is not like gun manufacturers because there are many. How many Facebooks are there versus discriminators?

        Sometimes pragmatism is seen even in courts and Congress.

  • As a social media platform that regularly practices discrimination against its content providers (users), Facebook could easily disable problematic filters for housing-related ads. For one of the world’s largest corporate monopolies to ignore safeguards which expose their users to litigation is unconscionable. They should fix the issue promptly.

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