Facebook Discriminates Users Based on Race, Gender and Religion in Housing Ads, HUD charges say

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Thursday that it was charging Facebook with violating the Fair Housing Act by "encouraging, enabling and causing housing discrimination" through the company's targeted advertising platform.

The government agency alleged that the social media network's targeted advertising platform "unlawfully discriminates" by restricting who can view housing-related advertising. Facebook "mines extensive data about its users and then uses those data to determine which of its users view housing-related ads based, in part, on these protected characteristics," the agency said in its lawsuit.

The charge stems from a preliminary investigation begun under the Obama administration into alleged discrimination by Facebook. Last August, HUD Secretary Ben Carson accused Facebook of discrimination because it lets advertisers exclude people based on their race, gender, national origin, family status, ZIP code or religion.

"Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live," Carson said in a statement on Thursday. "Using a computer to limit a person's housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone's face."

The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing-related discrimination, including via online ads, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability or familial status. The agency said it would "obtain appropriate relief for the harm Facebook caused and continues to cause."

Litigation was filed last year by housing civil rights organizations.

In a release, the agency said Facebook had enabled advertisers to exclude people based on nationality and religion. HUD charged that Facebook would "exclude people based upon their neighborhood by drawing a red line around those neighborhoods on a map." It alleged the website had given advertisers the option of showing ads only to men or only to women.

The agency alleged that "[Facebook] ads for housing and housing-related services are shown to large audiences that are severely biased based on characteristics protected by the Act, such as audiences of tens of thousands of users that are nearly all men or nearly all women."

'Disappointed'

Facebook told Newsweek the company was "surprised by HUD's decision."

A spokesperson for the social network said, "We've been working with them to address their concerns and have taken significant steps to prevent ads discrimination.

"Last year we eliminated thousands of targeting options that could potentially be misused, and just last week we reached historic agreements with the National Fair Housing Alliance, ACLU and others that change the way housing, credit and employment ads can be run on Facebook.

"While we were eager to find a solution," the statement continued, "HUD insisted on access to sensitive information—like user data—without adequate safeguards. We're disappointed by today's developments, but we'll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues."

On March 19, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg announced changes to housing and credit advertising. She wrote, "Our policies already prohibit advertisers from using our tools to discriminate. We've removed thousands of categories from targeting related to protected classes such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion. But we can do better."

Sandberg added in a blog post, "We look forward to engaging in serious consultation and work with key civil rights groups, experts and policymakers to help us find the right path forward."

She said the social network no longer lets advertisers run housing, employment or credit ads targeted by age, gender or ZIP code. Advertisers now have a "smaller set of targeting categories."

This is a developing story and will be updated when more information becomes available.

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, April 11, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Facebook Discriminates Users Based on Race, Gender and Religion in Housing Ads, HUD charges say | U.S.