The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced on Friday that they were filing a formal complaint against Facebook for violating the Fair Housing Act by allowing landlords and home sellers to use its advertising platform to engage in housing discrimination.
HUD claims Facebook enables advertisers to control which users receive housing-related ads based upon the recipient’s race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, disability, and/or zip code. HUD alleges that 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." You can read the full complaint right here.
“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. “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 Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing transactions including print and online advertisement on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or familial status. HUD’s Secretary-initiated complaint follows the Department’s investigation into Facebook’s advertising platform which includes targeting tools that enable advertisers to filter prospective tenants or homebuyers based on these protected classes.
HUD’s complaint alleges that Facebook’s platform violates the Fair Housing Act by enabling advertisers to, among other things:
- display housing ads either only to men or women;
- not show ads to Facebook users interested in an “assistance dog,” “mobility scooter,” “accessibility,” or “deaf culture”
- not show ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in “child care” or “parenting,” or show ads only to users with children above a specified age
- display/not display ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in a particular place of worship, religion, or tenet, such as the “Christian Church,” “Sikhism,” “Hinduism,” or the “Bible”
- not show ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in “Latin America,” “Canada,” “Southeast Asia,” “China,” “Honduras,” or “Somalia”
- draw a red line around ZIP codes and then not display ads to Facebook users who live in specific zip codes
HUD also claims that Facebook promotes its advertising targeting platform for housing purposes with “success stories” for finding “the perfect homeowners,” “reaching home buyers,” “attracting renters,” and “personalizing property ads.”
In addition, on Friday the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York filed a statement of interest, joined in by HUD, in U.S. District Court on behalf of a number of private litigants challenging Facebook’s advertising platform.
This isn't the first time critics have leveled complaints at Facebook's ad practices. In 2017, ProPublica purchased dozens of rental housing ads on the site but specifically requested that they not be shown to a variety of groups protected under the federal Fair Housing Act. That act makes it illegal to run ads that indicate “any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.”
The ads targeted men and women, aged 18-65, living in New York City, and highlighted categories such as “first-time buyer,” “house hunting,” and “buying a house.” However, ProPublica requested that their Facebook ads exclude a wide variety of groups, including “African Americans, mothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Jews, expats from Argentina, and Spanish speakers.” According to ProPublica, all of the ads were approved by Facebook—most of them in five minutes or less. You can read more about ProPublica's study by clicking here.