HUD Charges Facebook with Housing Discrimination

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently announced that it is charging Facebook for violating the Fair Housing Act, alleging that it has encouraged, enabled, and caused housing discrimination through its advertising platform. The charges follow a complaint filed on August 13, 2017, the agency noted, adding that Facebook discriminates based on familial status, sex, religion, race, color, and national origin. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against the house buyer or renter.

“Because of the way [Facebook] designed its advertising platform, ads for housing and housing-related services are shown to large audiences that are severely biased based on characteristics protected by the Act, such as audiences of tens of thousands of users that are nearly all men or nearly all women,” the document read.

The charge indicated that Facebook employs the protected characteristics of a user to determine who views ads whether the advertiser wishes to reach a narrow or wide audience. Facebook combines online and offline data collection about a user’s behavior and attributes, the charge claimed. HUD concluded that by “grouping users who have similar attributes and behaviors (unrelated to housing) and presuming a shared interest or disinterest in housing-related advertisements, Facebook’s mechanisms function just like an advertiser who intentionally targets or excludes users based on their protected class.”

HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement that Facebook is discriminating users based on who they are and where they live. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face,” he said.

Though the Fair Housing Act was enacted in 1968 as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of the same year, HUD General Counsel Paul Compton said that discrimination in housing-related advertising is illegal, thus extending its power to online services. “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,” Compton said in the same statement.

Last week, Facebook announced it would launch a new advertising portal for ads linked to housing and employment that could limit targeting options for advertisers, Reuters reported. The social media network also said it has been working with the department to address its concerns, adding that the charge took them by surprise, especially since the platform has taken “significant steps” to forbid ads that discriminate, the news outlet reported.


About the Author

Robert Valencia is the breaking news editor for The North Star. His work as editor and reporter appeared on Newsweek, World Politics Review, Mic.com, Public Radio International, and The Miami Herald, among other outlets. He’s a frequent commentator on foreign affairs and US politics on Al Jazeera English, CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Voice of America, C-SPAN, Sirius XM and other media outlets across Latin America and the Caribbean.