#AceNewsReports – Aug.18: The agency filed a formal complaint against the social media company on Friday, alleging that it allows landlords and home sellers to use targeted Facebook (FB) ads to discriminate against potential buyers or tenants on the basis of race, sex, religion, disability and other characteristics: “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,” Anna María Farías, assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, said in a statement #AceNewsDesk reports
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced today a formal complaint against Facebook for violating the Fair Housing Act by allowing landlords and home sellers to use its advertising platform to engage in housing discrimination.
HUD claims Facebook enables advertisers to control which users receive housing-related ads based upon the recipient’s race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, disability, and/or zip code. Facebook then invites advertisers to express unlawful preferences by offering discriminatory options, allowing them to effectively limit housing options for these protected classes under the guise of ‘targeted advertising.’ Read HUD’s complaint against Facebook.
“The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination including those who might limit or deny housing options with a click of a mouse,” said Anna María Farías, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. “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.”
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing transactions including print and online advertisement on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or familial status. HUD’s Secretary-initiated complaint follows the Department’s investigation into Facebook’s advertising platform which includes targeting tools that enable advertisers to filter prospective tenants or homebuyers based on these protected classes.
For example, HUD’s complaint alleges Facebook’s platform violates the Fair Housing Act. It enables advertisers to, among other things:
- display housing ads either only to men or women;
- not show ads to Facebook users interested in an “assistance dog,” “mobility scooter,” “accessibility” or “deaf culture”;
- not show ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in “child care” or “parenting,” or show ads only to users with children above a specified age;
- to display/not display ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in a particular place of worship, religion or tenet, such as the “Christian Church,” “Sikhism,” “Hinduism,” or the “Bible.”
- not show ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in “Latin America,” “Canada,” “Southeast Asia,” “China,” “Honduras,” or “Somalia.”
- draw a red line around zip codes and then not display ads to Facebook users who live in specific zip codes.
Additionally, Facebook promotes its advertising targeting platform for housing purposes with “success stories” for finding “the perfect homeowners,” “reaching home buyers,” “attracting renters” and “personalizing property ads.”
In addition, today the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) filed a statement of interest, joined in by HUD, in U.S. District Court on behalf of a number of private litigants challenging Facebook’s advertising platform.
HUD Secretary-Initiated Complaints
The Secretary of HUD may file a fair housing complaint directly against those whom the Department believes may be in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Secretary-Initiated Complaints are appropriate in cases, among others, involving significant issues that are national in scope or when the Department is made aware of potential violations of the Act and broad public interest relief is warranted or where HUD does not know of a specific aggrieved person or injured party that is willing or able to come forward. A Fair Housing Act complaint, including a Secretary initiated complaint, is not a determination of liability.
A Secretary-Initiated Complaint will result in a formal fact-finding investigation. The party against whom the complaint is filed will be provided notice and an opportunity to respond. If HUD’s investigation results in a determination that reasonable cause exists that there has been a violation of the Fair Housing Act, a charge of discrimination may be filed. Throughout the process, HUD will seek conciliation and voluntary resolution. Charges may be resolved through settlement, through referral to the Department of Justice, or through an administrative determination.
Persons who believe they have experienced discrimination may file a complaint by contacting HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at (800) 669-9777 (voice) or (800) 927-9275 (TTY).
CNN reported that Facebook responded to the allegation with a statement insisting that “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… and we’ll continue working directly with HUD to address their concerns.”
The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits home rental and sale advertisements from discriminating “based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.”
In its complaint, the federal housing agency outlined several ways landlords or sellers can use Facebook ads to do just that. They could, for example, decide to show the ads to only men, or ensure that their ads don’t appear in the feeds of anyone with “accessibility” listed as an interest.
The National Fair Housing Alliance made the same argument in a federal lawsuit against the social media company. The case, filed in March in New York City, claims that Facebook’s advertising tools continue to allow marketers to exclude women and families with children from seeing certain housing ads.
Diane L. Houk, one of the attorneys who filed that suit, called Friday’s complaint “a very important step by HUD to enforce the Fair Housing Act.”
HUD and the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York also filed documents bolstering the suit brought by the housing advocates. In a statement of interest filed with the court, they rejected Facebook’s argument that it is protected from the federal housing law by the Communications Decency Act, which limits the liability of website operators.
The government argued that Facebook should in this case be classified as an internet content provider and is therefore subject to the Fair Housing Act.
Facebook said it “will respond in court” to the statement of interest
Some of the details outlined in the HUD complaint, such as accusations of exclusion based on religion or an interest in “deaf culture” do not appear in the lawsuit filed by the National Fair Housing Alliance.
Houk said it is “very troubling to see that these categories are still available,” especially “given the amount of public statements and coverage … over the last two years.”
According to the HUD complaint, the alleged violations occurred as recently as last month. But Facebook has faced such accusations since 2016, when ProPublica reported posting an ad for a housing event that it requested not be shown to anyone with what Facebook’s ad tool callsan “ethnic affinity” of African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic.
“Our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement at the time. “We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.”
ProPublica said last year that it was able to buy dozens of home rental advertisements targeted toward audiences that specifically excluded “African Americans, mothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Jews, expats from Argentina and Spanish speakers.”
— CNN’s Seth Fiegerman contributed to this report.
CNNMoney (New York) First published August 17, 2018: 5:23 PM ET
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