"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," says a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The agency recently filed a complaint against Facebook accusing it of allowing landlords and home sellers to limit prospective tenants and buyers by race and other characteristics that are protected in the Fair Housing Act. It is illegal to discriminate in housing against members of protected groups, which include:
- National origin
- Familial status (having children and seeking non-senior housing)
According to HUD's complaint, Facebook allows advertisers to prevent certain people from even seeing their ads by excluding them from the audience being targeted. For example, if someone had expressed interest in deaf culture or mobility scooters, they could be completely excluded from the audience for the ad. That would result in the intentional exclusion of some people with disabilities.
The complaint ads that advertisers could also exclude people by their ZIP code, which would result in a form of redlining.
The HUD complaint comes after the National Fair Housing Alliance and other fair housing advocacy groups sued Facebook in March. The HUD complaint allows that lawsuit to continue. On Aug. 17, the Justice Department filed a separate statement of interest in the fair housing advocates' case.
Facebook has attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed, claiming that it is merely an interactive computer service with no responsibility to ensure that housing advertisers comply with the Fair Housing Act. A spokesperson for Facebook also said that it would work with HUD to address the concerns.
Interestingly, however, Facebook recently signed a legally binding, nationwide non-discrimination pledge. According to the Washington State Office of the Attorney General, Facebook agreed to "make significant changes to its advertising platform by removing the ability of third-party advertisers to exclude ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals and other protected groups from seeing their ads."
These changes are due within 90 days and are intended to prevent advertisers of housing, employment, credit, insurance and other public accommodations from being able to exclude protected groups from their ads.