Citing new information that justifies further review, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has ordered an investigation into whether Facebook violated fair-housing laws reopened after a five-month freeze, an agency official told Gizmodo.
Carson first revealed that the investigation, which was terminated last November, according to The New York Times, had been reopened in surprising testimony before Congress on Wednesday.
“Secretary Carson has directed HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity to re-open its investigation into Facebook’s advertising practices,” said Jereon Brown, HUD’s general deputy secretary for public affairs.
Added Brown: “Since our initial investigation, we have learned more about these practices that warrant a deeper level of scrutiny. At this point, we are resuming an investigation and have made no findings in this matter.”
HUD’s investigation into Facebook began in late 2016 following the publication of a ProPublica article that described how Facebook had enabled advertisers to exclude—in an apparent violation of federal law—categories of users based on what Facebook termed “Ethnic Affinities.”
Facebook provided realtors, for example, with ad-targeting options that allowing them to “narrow” their ads to excluded, among others, black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans. The ad-targeting mechanism may have also allowed realtors—or homeowners looking to rent out or sell their own properties—to exclude people with disabilities as well.
The Fair Housing Act, enacted in 1968, expressly outlaws refusal to sell or rent housing based on race, color, disability, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.
In November, Facebook said in a statement that it had installed “safeguards” to prevent advertisers from excluding users based on their race and ethnicity, but that a “technical glitch” had allowed the practice to continue.
Thee investigation into Facebook’s advertising practices was terminated, according to the Times, as part of a broader effort at HUD to scale back enforcement of fair-housing laws. Specifically, Anna Maria Farías, head of HUD’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity division, is said to have ordered a hold on roughly a half-dozen investigations.
Grilled on Wednesday over who ultimately ordered the investigation squashed by Sen. Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, Carson was characteristically at a loss for words, visibly straining to hold back the names of subordinates involved:
Sen. Brian Schatz: Were you involved personally in the decision to terminate the Facebook investigation?
Sec. Ben Carson: I gave, uh, and I give all of my people the degree of independence that they need, but I will tell you that….
Schatz: Whose decision was this?
Carson: I think we jointly agreed that was the thing to do at that time.
Schatz: But I mean, you have a hierarchy right? And there are certain authorities and certain assistant secretaries and professional staff. Was this your decision?
Carson: Well, the secretary is responsible for all decisions, regardless of who made them.
Schatz: But who made the decision?
Carson: (long pause) The decision was made… at a level other than myself but I gave permission for the decision to be made.
Schatz: And what level is that?
Carson: The assistant secretary.
When further pressed by Schatz on what basis the investigation was terminated, Carson pointed to both time and workload constraints—neither of which, notably, was an issue for his predecessor, Julián Castro, who made fair housing a lead priority at HUD.
“We didn’t really have time to study them, so we wanted to really pull them back and have a chance to study,” said Carson, adding, to Schatz’s apparent surprise, that HUD was once again investigating Facebook.
“The investigation is open again?” Schatz replied.
“It is,” Carson said.
“Is this the first we’re hearing about it?” Schatz asked.
“It may well be,” Carson said.
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Update, 4/19: A Facebook spokesperson sent Gizmodo the following statement:
There is no place for discrimination on our platform. It is explicitly forbidden in our ads policies and it also violates our principles. Over the past year we’ve strengthened our ads products to further protect against potential misuse. This includes removing thousands of categories, like multicultural affinity segments, from our exclusion targeting tools. We’ve also improved our certification systems, which requires advertisers to certify that they are complying with our anti-discrimination policies and all applicable anti-discrimination laws when running ads for housing, employment or credit opportunities on Facebook. These systems reject thousands of such ads per day; if the business declines to certify their compliance, the ad is rejected.