Revelations that Facebook’s ad-targeting tool could allow advertisers to try to hide housing-related ads from minorities has stirred controversy in recent days.

Now the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is taking action, Inman has learned.

“HUD is aware of the published reports that Facebook’s advertising tool may allow users to discriminate in housing advertisements,” HUD spokeswoman Heather Fluit told Inman. “We are currently in discussions with Facebook to address our serious concerns.”

This validates the widespread view that the social network made it possible to create ads that — if approved by Facebook — would violate fair housing laws. And it highlights the legal risk of using ad filters based on characteristics such as sex and familial status, not just race.

The Fair Housing Act, a federal anti-discrimination law established in 1968, prohibits discrimination in housing-related transactions on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and familial status. Some state fair housing laws cover additional characteristics, such as sexual orientation, marital status, ancestry and creed.

Facebook advertisers can use the social network’s ad-targeting platform to push ads to users on the basis of their “ethnic affinity” by choosing to exclude certain affinities, such as “African American,” “Hispanic” and “Asian American.”

In a blog post, Facebook defended using such targeting options in some cases, but also said that it prohibits ads that involve illegal discrimination.

It cited “an apartment that won’t rent to black people” as as an example of the sort of “negative exclusion” that violates its ad policies.

“If we learn of advertising on our platform that involves this kind of discrimination, we will take aggressive enforcement action,” it said.

But ProPublica raised concerns that some discriminatory housing-related ads could slip through Facebook’s vetting system.

It reported buying an ad that targeted Facebook users who were house hunting and excluded anyone with an “affinity” for African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic people.

The ad was approved in 15 minutes, ProPublica said. The publication later clarified that the ad “was not for housing itself — it was placed in Facebook’s housing categories.”

HUD’s statement to Inman came after four members of Congress expressed “deep concerns” over reports that Facebook’s “Ethnic Affinities” targeting option lets advertisers exclude ethnic groups when placing housing ads.

“This is in direction violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and it is our strong desire to see Facebook address this issue immediately,” they wrote.

Email Teke Wiggin.

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