The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) filed a discrimination complaint against Facebook Aug. 17. HUD claims that the company violated the Fair Housing Act by allowing landlords and home sellers to target or exclude users from certain locations using the website’s advertising platform.
According to the formal complaint by HUD, Facebook allows advertisers on its websites to control which users receive housing-related ads based on a number of factors including a user’s race, color, religion, sex, familial status, disability and ZIP code.
Some of the specific complaints including the ability not to show ads to Facebook users interested in an “assistance dog,” “mobility scooter,” “accessibility” or “deaf culture” as well as the ability to draw a red line around ZIP codes and exclude users who live in specific ZIP codes.
By providing these preferences, HUD is claiming that Facebook allows advertisers to create unlawful preferences and limit housing options for people within protected classes.
“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 National Association of Realtors issued a statement on Monday applauding HUD’s decision to tackle online discrimination and defending housing laws across all tools and platforms.
“In 2018, as America recognizes the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, the National Association of Realtors strongly supports a housing market free from all types of discrimination,” NAR President Elizabeth Mendenhall said. “However, as various online tools and platforms continue to transform the real estate industry in the 21st Century, our understanding of how this law is enforced and applied must continue to evolve as well.”
“Facebook has known for years that its advertising platform violates civil rights laws, but…has refused to change,” said Diane L. Houk, an attorney representing the NFHA. “Facebook is not above the law and must answer these civil rights claims in court.”
HUD said that this featuring is a problem throughout the United States and has impacted an undetermined number of users.
A Facebook representative told Axios, “There is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it’s strictly prohibited in our policies. Over the past year we’ve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse. We’re aware of the statement of interest filed and will respond in court; and we’ll continue working directly with HUD to address their concerns.”