Since its launch, Facebook’s ad-targeting feature made headlines for being used as a tool to discriminate against prospective homebuyers and renters on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin and other factors — all a violation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
Although Facebook has taken steps to squash discrimination through revised housing ad controls, the problem has yet to be solved as evidenced by a lawsuit filed by the Housing Rights Initiative (HRI) on Wednesday.
In the suit, which includes 54-year-old Neuhtah Opiotennione as a plaintiff, HRI claims Bozzuto Management, Fairfield Residential, Fore Property, Greystar Real Estate Partners, Kettler, The Tower Companies and Wood Partners hid Facebook ads from renters older than 50 in the Washington, D.C., area.
“Housing discrimination was banned nationwide in 1968,” said HRI director Aaron Carr in a prepared statement. “It’s shocking that over 50 years later, so many major companies in America seem to have ignored the message when advertising apartments and homes.”
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status when it comes to home sales, rentals, advertising, mortgage lending and insurance, property insurance, and environmental justice.
The Act doesn’t explicitly mention age, but an explainer by legal database NOLO says “[age discrimination] is definitely forbidden under the broader prohibition against discrimination on the basis of familial status.”
“I’m shocked and disappointed to hear that I, along with other older residents, have been excluded from housing ads on Facebook,” Opiotennione added. “We deserve the same opportunity to hear about apartments as younger people.”
Bozzuto Management is the only defendant to publicly refute HRI and Opiotennione’s discrimination claims.
“Bozzuto Management Co. is committed to fair housing, and we are proud of the wonderful diversity of our communities,” said a company spokesperson in a report by Adweek. “We have been proactive in working with Facebook and other social media platforms to ensure that our advertising is not discriminatory.”
“We are confident that our advertising practices comply with D.C. and Montgomery County law, and we will gladly work with these jurisdictions to investigate and address any issues,” they added.
Over the past few years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has kept a close eye on Facebook and its ad-targeting policies with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even testifying before the Senate in April 2018.
“We’ve removed the ability to exclude ethnic groups and other sensitive categories from ad targeting,” said Zuckerberg of his company’s revised ad-targeting policy. “That just isn’t a feature that’s even available anymore.”
“For some of these cases, where it may make sense to target proactively a group, the enforcement today — we review ads, we screen them up front — most of the enforcement today is still that our community flags issues for us when they come up,” he added. “If the community flags that issue for us, then our team, which has thousands of people working on it, should take it down.”
“We’ll make some mistakes, but we try to make as few as possible,” Zuckerberg concluded. “Over time, the strategy would be to develop more AI [artificial intelligence] tools that can more proactively identify that kind of content and do that filtering up front.”
A year later, Facebook rolled out new a new ad-targeting policy that separates ads for housing, employment and credit (HEC) on its Ads Manager tool for Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. The policy also removed filters related to classes protected under state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
Even still, HUD and organizations such as HRI have kept close watch on Facebook, saying the company still has improvements to make.
“Even as we confront new technologies, the fair housing laws enacted over half a century ago remain clear—discrimination in housing-related advertising is against the law,” said HUD General Counsel Paul Compton in March.
“Just because a process to deliver advertising is opaque and complex doesn’t mean that it exempts Facebook and others from our scrutiny and the law of the land. Fashioning appropriate remedies and the rules of the road for today’s technology as it impacts housing are a priority for HUD.”