The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has accused Facebook of housing discrimination by allowing advertisers to block their offerings from different categories of users.
The HUD complaint is based on the Fair Housing Act, which it claims Facebook violated by allowing housing advertisers to use the site’s filters to exclude people with different interests, including racial, ethnic and religious interests. The filters were also used to block users by zip code.
“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.”
Facebook acknowledged that the technology existed for such filtering, but added:
There is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it’s strictly prohibited in our policies. Over the past year we’ve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse. We’re aware of the statement of interest filed and will respond in court; we’ll continue working directly with HUD to address their concerns.
The “secretary-initiated complaint,” which will be investigated and could lead to a full charge, alleges:
Facebook unlawfully discriminates by enabling advertisers to restrict which Facebook users receive housing-related ads based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin and disability. Facebook mines extensive user data and classifies its users based on protected characteristics. Facebook’s ad targeting tools then invite advertisers to express unlawful preferences by suggesting discriminatory options, and Facebook effectuates the delivery of housing-related ads to certain users and not others based on those users’ actual or imputed protected traits.
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.