• After banning housing advertisers from targeting users by race, Facebook allows housing advertisers to target users by race.
  • The social network said allowing the continued purchase of discriminatory rental ads was "due to a technical failure" and pledged to "do better."

When it comes to preventing housing discrimination, Facebook appears to be falling far short of its promises.

A year ago, Facebook announced it would bar housing ads targeted by race from its social network. In February, the $528 billion company announced improved enforcement of that ban, but investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica has found that Facebook is still letting housing advertisers exclude users by race.

The news outlet was the first to raise concerns in October 2016 that some discriminatory housing-related ads could slip through Facebook’s vetting system after 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.

Last week, ProPublica again tested whether Facebook would allow the purchase of discriminatory ads. The news outlet bought dozens of Facebook rental housing ads and asked that they be hidden from certain types of users, such as African Americans, Asian Americans, parents, people interested in wheelchair ramps, expats from Mexico, Jews and Spanish speakers.

ProPublica housing ad excluding by race

Such users are protected classes under the Fair Housing Act, a federal anti-discrimination law established in 1968 that 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. All real estate agents and brokers must abide by fair housing laws.

ProPublica housing ad excluding by family status

“Every single ad was approved within minutes,” ProPublica reported.

“Under its own policies, Facebook should have flagged these ads, and prevented the posting of some of them. Its failure to do so revives questions about whether the company is in compliance with federal fair housing rules, as well as about its ability and commitment to police discriminatory advertising on the world’s largest social network.”

PropPublica housing ad excluding by disability

The report comes as Facebook expanded its Marketplace earlier this month to include “hundreds of thousands” of rental listings from sources such as Apartment List and Zumper.

In an emailed statement, Ami Vora, vice president of product management at Facebook, told ProPublica that allowing the purchase of discriminatory rental ads “was a failure in our enforcement and we’re disappointed that we fell short of our commitments.”

Vora said the ads purchased by ProPublica should have but did not trigger the extra measures Facebook put in place to combat discrimination “due to a technical failure.”

“We don’t want Facebook to be used for discrimination and will continue to strengthen our policies, hire more ad reviewers, and refine machine learning tools to help detect violations,” she said.

She added that while Facebook had “successfully flagged millions of ads” and continues to improve, “we can do better.”

ProPublica housing ad excluding by religion

She said the company currently requires housing, employment and credit advertisers to self-certify compliance with its anti-discrimination policies and the law and will now extend that requirement to all advertisers who choose to exclude some users from seeing their ads on Facebook.

Whether such a measure will actually be put in place effectively is uncertain — ProPublica said it never encountered a self-certification screen when it was buying its housing ads.

ProPublica housing ad excluding by national origin

In November 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said it was in discussions with Facebook to address HUD’s “serious concerns” regarding the use of Facebook’s advertising tool for housing discrimination. According to ProPublica, HUD told them it had closed that inquiry.

On Tuesday, HUD told Inman no one was currently available for comment due to the Thanksgiving holiday.

ProPublica also tested whether Facebook allowed redlining — the use of geography to deny or limit services to certain racial or ethnic groups — and found that it was able to buy a housing ad that targeted ZIP codes in Brooklyn where residents are more than 50 percent non-Hispanic white people (i.e. majority-minority), according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

“Facebook drew blue lines around our target neighborhoods and told us our ‘audience selection is great!’ It approved the ad,” ProPublica said.

The news outlet said it deleted each ad as soon as it was approved.

Email Andrea V. Brambila.

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