Housing Dept. files discrimination complaint against Facebook

The social network is said to have violated the Fair Housing Act with targeting advertising, including allowing ads to be limited based on a user's religion

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced Friday it has filed a formal complaint against Facebook alleging the company has violated the Fair Housing Act, the landmark law designed to prohibit housing discrimination.

HUD says Facebook’s online advertising program enabled discriminatory practices by letting ad purchasers target and limit ads for properties “based upon the recipient’s race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, disability, and/or zip code.”

“There is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it’s strictly prohibited in our policies,” a spokesperson for Facebook told Inman. “Over the past year we’ve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse. We’re aware of the statement of interest filed and will respond in court; and we’ll continue working directly with HUD to address their concerns.”

The Fair Housing Act passed in 1968 and prohibits the denial of housing or housing-related services based on these attributes.

Facebook first faced scrutiny over its online advertising practices, after an investigation from ProPublica found that Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude certain ethnic groups when posting ads for housing. This allowed advertisers, in effect, to create digital “whites-only” housing listings.

At the time of the initial investigation, Facebook said it would prevent this from happening again, but a year later, in November 2017, ProPublica found it was still able to place similar discriminatory ads. Facebook is also being sued by the National Fair Housing Alliance in connection with these reports.

HUD began investigating Facebook’s online advertising practices in 2016 and reportedly closed the investigation the same year. However, in 2017, the agency reportedly found new information that prompted it to seek further review, an official confirmed to Gizmodo.

The maximum civil penalty for an individual’s first violation of the Fair Housing Act is $19,787. Respondents who violated the act within the previous five years can be fined a maximum of $49,467 and respondents who violated the act more than twice within the previous seven years could be fined a maximum of $98,935, according to a revision of the civil penalties, issued in 2016. The civil penalties are in addition to damages and attorney’s fees that may be awarded to an individual who has experienced housing discrimination.

Read the press release below. The full complaint is here.

WASHINGTON – 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.

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