On August 17, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development filed a formal complaint against Facebook, accusing the social media giant of providing tools that allow advertisers to discriminate against people with disabilities and other groups protected by federal law.
The complaint alleges that Facebook’s targeted advertising platform allows housing providers to discriminate against protected classes of citizens by letting them decide which categories of users will and won’t be shown their advertisements.
Facebook mines vast amounts of user data, and a portion of the company’s revenue comes from selling this data to businesses in the form of targeted advertising. Companies can choose specific audiences for an ad — from the most general like gender or country of residence, to the more specific, like what kind of charitable contributions they make or what interests they have. Importantly, companies can also restrict specific audiences from seeing their ads. HUD alleges that, “Facebook enables advertisers to discriminate based on disability by not showing ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in ‘assistance dog,’ ‘mobility scooter,’ ‘accessibility’ or ‘deaf culture.’”
In addition to disability, HUD accuses Facebook of allowing advertisers to discriminate based on age, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin and/or zip code. “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, in a release announcing the complaint. “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 agency also joined in a statement of interest filed by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York on behalf of private litigants, including the National Fair Housing Alliance, who have sued Facebook in U.S. District Court, challenging the legality of its advertising practices.
In response, Facebook issued a statement saying, “There is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it’s strictly prohibited in our policies. Over the past year we’ve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse.”
Yet in October 2016, the investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica published a report outlining how Facebook let advertisers discriminate based on race and other protected classes in its housing categories. Facebook responded, promising to make changes to its advertising categories and beef up its anti-discrimination monitoring systems. A year later, in a follow-up investigation, ProPublica found that it was still able to exclude protected classes when placing ads on the platform. One ad approved by Facebook specifically excluded users interested in “wheelchair ramp,” “wheelchair accessible van,” “Braille,” and “guide dogs for the blind,” among others.
Facebook again responded and promised to make changes. The HUD complaint, ongoing lawsuits and a recent settlement with the state of Washington suggest that the company still has long way to go to remove discriminatory advertising from its platform.
“This is the problem when new forms of technology and media supplant the old ones that regulations were designed for. There was a similar issue with Craig’s List, where discriminatory ads were posted all the time. The new players think the rules don’t apply to them,” says Brian Peters, co-chair of housing subcommittee at the National Council for Independent Living. “It’s understandable [initially] not realizing that your programming allows others to act in a discriminatory way. … But what’s not forgivable is being alerted to this problem, repeatedly, and ignoring it. You then become culpable in those acts of housing discrimination.”