Facebook allows advertisers to target people based on insights gleaned from the vast amounts of personal information users input on the social network. In the past, this has enabled—as ProPublica first reported in 2016 and again in November of 2017—ads that exclude people based on race, which is illegal under federal housing and employment law.
Now, a group of fair housing advocacy organizations are suing Facebook on the grounds that leveraging user data to allow allegedly discriminatory ads is illegal, and Facebook is still doing it. The complaint is being led by the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) and was filed in federal court in New York this week, where Facebook maintains an office.
"There is absolutely no place for discrimination on Facebook," a Facebook spokesperson wrote Motherboard in an email when reached for comment. "We believe this lawsuit is without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously."
The complaint alleges that the plaintiffs conducted an investigation between November of 2017 and March of this year in which they “created dozens of housing advertisements and completed Facebook’s full ad submission and review process.” The complaint alleges that Facebook’s pre-populated list of demographic options for advertisers allows for the exclusion of protected categories like mothers, as well as people with disability-related interests, and people with interests related to English as a second language or Spanish television (the complaint argues that these “are the equivalent of … categories labeled “disability” or “Hispanic”).
After ProPublica’s investigations raised the alarm bell on discriminatory ad practices using Facebook’s targeting, the company pledged to suspend the practice of race-based ad targeting. The NFHA-led lawsuit alleges that even though Facebook removed the option for targeting based on race or national origin, however, “it still allows previously existing ads that excluded or targeted on these bases to continue to do so.”
Neither the issue of discriminatory housing ads on Facebook, nor the core problem (that is, a private company monetizing vast amounts of personal data willy-nilly) are new, but they highlight how something as seemingly innocent as a social media profile can be used against you, often in surprising ways and without your knowledge. The ongoing Cambridge Analytica saga—wherein a Facebook survey led to information from millions of people being used to help the Trump campaign—is another example of this.
The lawsuit asks the court to stop Facebook from allowing discriminatory housing ads. It also asks the court to confirm that excluding protected groups from seeing housing ads is illegal under the FHA and New York City Human Rights Law and order Facebook to change its ad policies “by eliminating checkboxes, selection categories, and other content.”
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UPDATE: This article was updated to include comment from Facebook.