TR Daily HUD Charges Housing Discrimination Over Facebook Ad Platform
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Thursday, March 28, 2019

HUD Charges Housing Discrimination Over Facebook Ad Platform

The Department of Housing and Urban Development today charged Facebook, Inc., with violating the federal Fair Housing Act by discriminating regarding which users it delivers housing ads to.

The company recently settled lawsuits from public interest advocates over alleged discrimination in delivering housing, job, and credit ads (TR Daily, March 19).

According to HUD’s charging document, “During the ad targeting phase, Respondent [Facebook] provides an advertiser with tools to define which users, or which types of users, the advertiser would like to see an ad. Respondent has provided a toggle button that enables advertisers to exclude men or women from seeing an ad, a search-box to exclude people who do not speak a specific language from seeing an ad, and a map tool to exclude people who live in a specified area from seeing an ad by drawing a red line around that area. Respondent also provides drop-down menus and search boxes to exclude or include (i.e., limit the audience of an ad exclusively to) people who share specified attributes. Respondent has offered advertisers hundreds of thousands of attributes from which to choose, for example to exclude ‘women in the workforce,’ ‘moms of grade school kids,’ ‘foreigners,’ ‘Puerto Rico Islanders,’ or people interested in ‘parenting,’ ‘accessibility,’ ‘service animal,’ ‘Hijab Fashion,’ or ‘Hispanic Culture.’ Respondent also has offered advertisers the ability to limit the audience of an ad by selecting to include only those classified as, for example, ‘Christian’ or ‘Childfree.’”

Using its Lookalike tool, Facebook “combines data it collects about user attributes and behavior with data it obtains about user behavior on other websites and in the non-digital world. Facebook then allegedly uses machine learning and other prediction techniques to classify and group users to project each user’s likely response to a given ad, and in doing so, may recreate groupings defined by their protected class. The Charge concludes 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 explained in a press release.

In a statement, HUD Secretary Ben Carson said, “Facebook is discriminating against people based upon 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.”

HUD General Counsel Paul Compton said, “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. 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.”

HUD is seeking an injunction to bar Facebook from discriminating in marketing and advertising housing, an order requiring Facebook to have its employees and agents undergo Fair Housing Act training, the award of damages to fully compensate anyone harmed by Facebook’s discriminatory conduct, and the award of the maximum civil fine for each violation of Act.

HUD filed its charges with its Office of Administrative Law Judges, although any party can have the case moved to federal district court.

Facebook did not respond to TR Daily’s request for comment by our news deadline.

The “Washington Post” reported today that unnamed sources “with direct knowledge of the agency’s actions” have told it that HUD launched similar investigations in whether their targeted advertising tools may discriminate with regard to housing.

In a statement today, Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney with the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, which was one of the parties to the recent settlement with Facebook over alleged discrimination in housing, jobs, and credit advertising, said, “We welcome the news that HUD is continuing to pressure Facebook to reform its ad targeting platform, and in particular, the use of tools and algorithms that skew the audiences who receive ads. Although the settlement we reached with Facebook will result in removing many of the most troubling of Facebook’s advertising practices, there is more work to be done. We will continue to monitor the settlement’s implementation, which requires Facebook to study and report on algorithmic bias and any ongoing discriminatory impact of its targeting features.

Ms. Sherwin added, “The HUD complaint is certain to add much-needed pressure on Facebook to eradicate discrimination from its ad platform altogether, and we encourage the department to investigate the wide swath of online ad targeting platforms.”

Free Press Policy Counsel Gaurav Laroia said, “Facebook’s role in facilitating and encouraging discriminatory housing advertisements is a clear violation of the Fair Housing Act. HUD’s action today is commendable, if not overdue.”

Mr. Laroia added, “Facebook should be condemned for facilitating these violations and perpetuating inequity and segregation in our society. But this problem isn’t limited to Facebook. Online advertisers and major tech companies have been getting away with practices that deny people their basic civil rights for far too long. The algorithms that power the microtargeting of ads on these sites have been used to deny people opportunities in education, housing, jobs and lending — all areas where our civil-rights laws were designed to prevent discrimination.”

Sarah Miller, co-chair of the advocacy group Freedom from Facebook, whose members include the Communications Workers of America, Demand Progress, and Public Citizen, said, “We’re glad to see a government agency finally taking action against Facebook. Discriminatory advertisements, groups, and speech have existed and been protected on the platform for far too long without consequence. This is an important first step towards holding Facebook accountable for the harmful rhetoric it perpetuates and shady practices it thrives on. Unfortunately, this action by HUD also highlights the lack of urgency from the FTC. It has been over a year since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and after a year-long string of other data-related scandals, we once again call on the FTC to step up and address Facebook’s violated consent decree by breaking up its monopoly and imposing strong privacy regulations.” —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]

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