Aggressive Advocates For Your Rights

Facebook sued for allowing discriminatory housing advertising

In October 2016, the nonprofit investigative journal ProPublica published a blockbuster exposé about housing advertisements on Facebook. Advertisers could tailor their ads to exclude people based on race, gender and other factors that are illegal under the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing.

The National Fair Housing Alliance promptly sent a letter to Facebook asking the platform to address the issue. In November 2016, Facebook agreed to disable advertisers' ability to use "ethnic affinity marketing" to target ads for housing or credit. In early 2017, Facebook said its policies forbid discriminatory content in any ad.

In November 2017, however, ProPublica again found that advertisers could discriminate in housing ads. It found ads specifically excluding African-Americans, Jews, Spanish speakers and people interested in wheelchair ramps. The next month, ProPublica and the New York Times found that national employers had excluded people in job ads based on age.

"We thought they were sincere," said the president of the National Fair Housing Alliance. "But they have not changed their content, their platform and their systems to preclude advertisers from discriminating. When you think that Facebook has over two billion active users, that's pretty significant."

The National Fair Housing Alliance and affiliated local groups have now filed a federal lawsuit. It contends that Facebook's ad platform "continues to enable landlords and real estate brokers to bar families with children, women and others from receiving rental and sales ads for housing."

To test whether Facebook was still allowing the discriminatory ad targeting, the Alliance set up ads for fictitious apartments. Facebook's ad targeting platform allowed the Alliance to exclude both "corporate moms" and "stay-at-home moms" to eliminate women. The Washington, D.C.-based ad would have reached between 48,000 and 820,000.

For a fictitious New York housing ad, the Fair Housing Justice Center was able to select "men" as the target audience and also "no kids." For good measure, it was also able to exclude "moms of grade school kids" and other groups. That ad would have reached 280,000.

The lawsuit also points out that Facebook allows targeting and exclusion by "interests," but that these include things like "interest in disabled parking permit" and "disabled veteran," which allow disability discrimination. Spanish speakers could be excluded for their interest in Telemundo or English as a second language.

The lawsuit comes as Facebook struggles with the improper release of detailed information on at least 50 million users to Cambridge Analytica, which was working with political campaigns including that of Donald Trump. Collecting such information is central to Facebook's business model. The social media platform made over $40 billion in ad revenue last year.

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