US Regulator Accuses Facebook of 'Causing Housing Discrimination'

Credit: ShutterstockCredit: ShutterstockIt's uncanny; it almost seems like someone gave Facebook a heads-up that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) wasn't happy. Just nine days after the company said it was "doing more to protect against discrimination in housing, employment and credit advertising" it was charged with violating the Fair Housing Act.

Not that it would have taken a lot of foresight to predict this--the Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity filed a complaint about Facebook with HUD in August 2018. Now, the department has accused Facebook of "encouraging, enabling and causing housing discrimination" with its advertising platform.

"HUD alleges that Facebook unlawfully discriminates based on race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, sex and disability by restricting who can view housing-related ads on Facebook’s platforms and across the internet," HUD explained in its announcement today.

"Further, HUD claims Facebook mines extensive data about its users and then uses those data to determine which of its users view housing-related ads based, in part, on these protected characteristics."

There's nothing revelatory about those accusations. Facebook relies on advertising, and marketers pay to advertise to specific demographics. ProPublica has even published numerous reports on how Facebook's ad platform enables housing discrimination since 2016.

What makes HUD's charges interesting, then, isn't that they reveal a problem with Facebook's advertising practices. It's that the company is actually being formally charged with a crime for those practices. It's like finally watching a bully get sent to the principal after getting away with everything for years.

Facebook tried to stave off HUD's criticism on March 19 when it revealed a settlement with various civil rights groups that had filed legal complaints about its platform enabling housing, credit and employment discrimination. The company said in a March 19 blog post about the settlement that it would enforce these rules:

  • "Anyone who wants to run housing, employment or credit ads will no longer be allowed to target by age, gender or zip code.
  • Advertisers offering housing, employment and credit opportunities will have a much smaller set of targeting categories to use in their campaigns overall. Multicultural affinity targeting will continue to be unavailable for these ads. Additionally, any detailed targeting option describing or appearing to relate to protected classes will also be unavailable.
  • We’re building a tool so you can search for and view all current housing ads in the US targeted to different places across the country, regardless of whether the ads are shown to you."

The problem is that those rules are self-imposed. Facebook has repeatedly — time and time again — damaged the trust of its users; making the value of its promises questionable at best.

HUD's complaint at least has the possibility of leading to restrictions being enforced by government regulators, instead of the social network's seemingly scant conscience.