Then-presidential candidate and current Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson in 2016.
Photo: Andrew Harnik (AP)

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has filed an official discrimination complaint against Facebook, saying the site’s dizzying array of advertising tools makes it simple for advertisers to illegally exclude wide swathes of the population from seeing housing ads, Politico wrote on Friday.

In a press release, HUD wrote that Facebook‚Äôs ‚Äútargeted advertising‚ÄĚ model more or less constitutes a way for said advertisers to skirt the federal Fair Housing Act, specifically by excluding members of protected categories:

HUD claims Facebook enables advertisers to control which users receive housing-related ads based upon the recipient‚Äôs race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, disability, and/or zip code. Facebook then invites advertisers to express unlawful preferences by offering discriminatory options, allowing them to effectively limit housing options for these protected classes under the guise of ‚Äėtargeted advertising.‚Äô

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Specific examples cited by HUD included showing display ads ‚Äúeither only to men or women,‚ÄĚ as well as preventing users flagged as interested in disabilities-related topics like ‚Äúassistance dog‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúaccessibility‚ÄĚ from seeing display ads. HUD also said that the targeted advertising tool can be used to prevent people interested in specific religions or regions from seeing ads, as well as ‚Äúdraw a red line around zip codes and then not display ads to Facebook users who live in specific zip codes.‚ÄĚ (That‚Äôs more or less a form of redlining, the practice of discriminating against entire communities that was banned half a century ago but continues to have a dramatic effect on the demographics of neighborhoods today.)

The complaint is just a complaint, but it does start an official process that will either end in Facebook reaching a resolution with federal officials or a lawsuit.

As CNN Tech reported, the National Fair Housing Alliance is simultaneously suing Facebook for the same reason. Facebook is trying to dismiss the suit by claiming it has limited liability for user-generated content, though HUD and federal prosecutors claim the site operates as an internet content provider with respect to housing ads and therefore is subject to civil rights law. CNN wrote:

Diane L. Houk, one of the attorneys who filed that suit, called Friday‚Äôs complaint ‚Äúa very important step by HUD to enforce the Fair Housing Act.‚ÄĚ

HUD and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York also filed documents bolstering the suit brought by the housing advocates. In a statement of interest filed with the court, they rejected Facebook’s argument that it is protected from the federal housing law by the Communications Decency Act, which limits the liability of website operators.

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Houk also told CNN that it was ‚Äúvery troubling to see that these categories are still available,‚ÄĚ given that there has been extensive reporting on the use of Facebook‚Äôs platform to enable housing discrimination.

After ProPublica discovered in 2016 that Facebook‚Äôs advertising tools could be used to exclude users based on ‚Äúethnic affinity,‚ÄĚ HUD began looking into the social network‚Äôs ad practices. It later dropped the investigation, but per the Washington Post, restarted it in part to prevent the perception the agency had caved, as well as after concluding the accusations had merit.

Facebook has claimed it is working to end discrimination on its platform by denying exclusion tools for protected categories in ads related to ‚Äúemployment, housing, credit, insurance and/or places of public accommodation,‚ÄĚ but the HUD complaint noted that offending practices continued as of July 24th, 2018. Essentially, it looks like Facebook removed the most obviously egregious elements of the targeted advertising system, but there are still numerous ways to use it to discriminate.

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‚ÄúThe Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination, including those who might limit or deny housing options with a click of a mouse,‚ÄĚ HUD assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity Anna Mar√≠a Far√≠as told the Post. ‚ÄúWhen Facebook uses the vast amount of personal data it collects to help advertisers to discriminate, it‚Äôs the same as slamming the door in someone‚Äôs face.‚ÄĚ

Facebook told the paper, ‚ÄúThere is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it‚Äôs strictly prohibited in our policies. Over the past year we‚Äôve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse. We‚Äôre aware of the statement of interest filed and will respond in court; we‚Äôll continue working directly with HUD to address their concerns.‚ÄĚ

Though HUD is targeting Facebook here, the agency‚Äôs current chief, Donald Trump appointee Ben Carson, has rolled back regulatory frameworks designed to prevent housing segregation elsewhere. As Slate reported, that includes rolling back the ‚Äúaffirmatively furthering fair housing‚ÄĚ rule, a Barack Obama-era framework designed to increase local compliance with the Fair Housing Act.

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[Politico/CNN Tech]