Facebook was hit, over the weekend, with a complaint by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The HUD claims Facebook’s allowing advertisers to discriminate against users searching for property with tools the company said it’d eliminated back in 2016.
The HUD alleges that Facebook’s ad targeting tools may be used to keep people of certain genders, races, religions, and familial status from being able to see ads for certain properties. It goes on to say: “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.'” This, as the HUD pointed out in their statement, would be a massive violation of the Fair Housing Act.
In the “two” of this weekend’s one-two punch from the US government to Facebook, the Justice Department backed a lawsuit filed against Facebook by housing advocates. The plaintiffs, which include the National Fair Housing Alliance, claim the company’s ad tools allow those advertising property to buy or rent to discriminate against potential renters by ensuring that only certain people could see the ads.
But this isn’t the first time Facebook’s ad targeting tools have gotten it into hot water. In fact, the company claimed to have fixed this problem almost two years ago.
Back in 2016, Facebook said it discontinued the targeting program that allowed advertisers to restrict their products to people based on “ethnic affinity.” While Facebook doesn’t allow users to identify as a particular race, it apparently marks users as a certain ethnicity based on their groups and interests. One of the most obvious examples was when Facebook showed people of different races different versions of the Straight Outta Compton trailer.
Later that year, Facebook announced it would be restricting ethnic affinity advertising for certain types of ads:
We will disable the use of ethnic affinity marketing for ads that we identify as offering housing, employment, or credit. There are many non-discriminatory uses of our ethnic affinity solution in these areas, but we have decided that we can best guard against discrimination by suspending these types of ads.
But as it turns out, those types of ad targeting aren’t solely used for race — and restricting ethnic affinity targeting isn’t enough to stop advertisers from making sure their ads wouldn’t be seen by minorities.
For example, according to the HUD’s complaint, Facebook are able to display ads only to specific genders, and to those who’ve identified as being of a particular religious group. Advertisers can choose not to have their ads displayed to those who’ve expressed interest in disability-related terms, such as “deaf culture” or “mobility scooter,” or it could restrict the ads only to those people in families without children or with children over a certain age.
In fact, they can allegedly draw a line around a zip code and the ad won’t be shown to anyone living in that zip code. This can be used to discriminate against those in predominantly-minority zones, which is presumably what Facebook was trying to prevent in the first place. ProPublica later tested this with phony ads and found that, as late as November 2017, it was still possible to exclude users who had an “affinity” for certain races from seeing a home ad.
If this is carried through to its conclusion, Facebook might be on the hook for any discrimination perpetrated by its advertisers. The Justice Department issued a statement, as reported by the New York Times, which implied the site could be held liable as the plaintiffs in the housing lawsuit claim it’s not immune under the Communications Decency Act. Facebook originally said the lawsuit didn’t apply as it was merely the messenger, but the reps from the Department shot that down hard:
Facebook’s analogy to “newspapers [that] sell advertising space to sporting goods stores in the sports section” is inapt; anyone can pick up the sports section and see those advertisements, and there is no federal law mandating equality of sporting goods opportunity.