The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) charged Facebook with violating the Fair Housing Act on Thursday for enabling discrimination in housing ads based on “race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin and disability."
It is illegal under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) to publish housing ads that indicate any “preference limitation, or discrimination” based on protected characteristics. HUD alleges Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude housing ads from “‘women in the workforce,’ ‘moms of grade school kids,’ ‘foreigners,’ ‘Puerto Rico Islanders,” and other protected groups.
These charges come after an investigation that followed an August 2018 discrimination complaint by the HUD, which alleged that Facebook permits “discriminatory advertising, statement, and notices” on its platform. Facebook said that they would disable tools that enabled racial discrimination for housing, employment, or credit ads in November 2017.
The HUD is seeking damages for “any aggrieved persons for any harm” and will require Facebook agents and employees to attend Fair Housing Act training.
When reached by Motherboard, a Facebook spokesperson said that the company was “surprised” by HUD's decision, and says that it has been working with HUD to address its concerns.
“While we were eager to find a solution, HUD insisted on access to sensitive information—like user data—without adequate safeguards,” the spokesperson said. “We're disappointed by today’s developments, but we’ll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues.”
A letter from Sandberg published last week says that Facebook no longer allows housing ads that target users by "age, gender, or zip code." It was published the same day outlets reported that Facebook is paying out $5 million to settle five separate housing discrimination suits filed between November 2016 and September 2018.
Allegations of housing ad discrimination is far from a new issue for Facebook. A 2016 ProPublica investigation found that a "multicultural affinity" tag—which was supposed to predict whether a person was "African American, Hispanic American, or Asian American" based on their Facebook activity—could be used to racially exclude people from certain housing advertisements on the platform.
In November 2017, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg stated that the company would disable the "multicultural affinity" ad-sorting group for housing, employment, or credit ads. Days after Sandberg’s announcement, ProPublica showed that Facebook still permitted ad discrimination. ProPublica submitted ads to Facebook and requested that they not be shown to “African Americans, mothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Jews, expats from Argentina and Spanish speakers.” Facebook approved every single ad.
At the time of writing, Facebook claims on its Ad Help Center that advertisers can target users on the basis of location, age, gender, language, interests, behaviors, and connections.