HUD Charges Facebook With Enabling Housing Discrimination

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The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on Thursday charged Facebook with discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. HUD says it believes the company was “encouraging, enabling, and causing housing discrimination through the company’s advertising platform.”

Facebook allegedly allowed advertisements on its platform to exclude certain people from targeting based on categories like race, religion, sex, and disability, among other protected classes. According to HUD, Facebook is also believed to have allowed advertisers to “exclude people based upon their neighborhood by drawing a red line around those neighborhoods on a map.”

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Facebook ran ads for mortgages, apartments, real estate listing services, and single-family houses by real estate agents. All were able to discriminate based on very specific criteria, according to HUD.

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

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ProPublica’s 2016 investigation into Facebook’s housing discrimination policies was the first to reveal that the social media giant was allowing for wholesale racial discrimination on its website. But everyone would soon learn that Facebook’s ads weren’t just allowing for discrimination based on race. As HUD points out in today’s filing, advertisers were allegedly allowed to discriminate based on virtually any category known to humanity.

Both the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit advertisers from discriminating against people. But Facebook was slippery and evasive about whether it should be held accountable for the discrimination. After all, the company’s entire business model is about microtargeting to make sure that ads on Facebook reach a very specific group of people.

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Facebook ensured people in 2017 that there were “safeguards” in place to protect against discrimination and even blamed a “technical glitch” at one point. But HUD doesn’t buy the argument that Facebook should be exempt from the Fair Housing Act.

“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,” HUD General Counsel Paul Compton said in a statement.

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“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 was previously sued by civil rights groups in New York and recently reached a $5 million settlement over its housing discrimination practices. Bizarrely, Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg gave herself a pat on the back for ending a policy that Facebook created which allowed the discrimination.

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Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Gizmodo this morning. We’ll update this article if we hear back.

[HUD via the Washington Post]

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Matt Novak

Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog