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HUD Charges Facebook with discrimination

A key selling point of Facebook Ads’ advertising platform is its many targeting options. Since users voluntarily offer up information about themselves—their interests, location, job, marital status, age, and so on—Facebook is able to grant advertisers the power to create hyper-specific micro-audiences.

It was revealed in late 2017 its advertising platform was enabling age-based discrimination. In March of 2019, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sued Facebook for facilitating housing discrimination, and violating the Fair Housing Act (FHA), since it allowed real estate advertisers the opportunity to use a number of protected categories such as race, religion, and familial status to target clients.

Where did Facebook go too far?

Many of Facebook’s advertising categories are generated using an algorithm. They use machine-learning technology to identify which criteria are most useful for advertisers. In this case, these categories were in direct conflict with historical anti-discrimination laws. For example, Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude Hispanic audiences, those who were not U.S. citizens, and Jewish people by way of identifying people who were referring to Passover. ProPublica caught wind of this phenomenon as early as 2016. However, HUD’s March 2019 lawsuit is the first time Facebook is being explicitly accused of facilitating housing discrimination.

How did they respond?

Facebook has been swift to respond to HUD’s accusations, removing approximately 5,000 targeting options for audiences that were enabling discriminatory advertising practices. But, it seems unlikely that they’ve addressed the underlying cause. These categories were generated automatically and made available to advertisers without direct human oversight. Facebook also announced that it would disallow companies from targeting audiences based on housing status, employment status, age, gender, and location. Despite removing the categories, many social justice organizations, most notably the ACLU, have pursued legal action against Facebook. The accusations are damning; HUD’s complaint likens the Facebook Ad platform to notable instances of historical housing discrimination such as redlining, with HUD Secretary Ben Carson describing how “using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face”. Chances are that these lawsuits will be settled in civil court, and result in Facebook paying heavy fines for violations and damages, since HUD is seeking the maximum penalty.

What should I do?

While the lawsuit is clear in accusing Facebook of facilitating the housing discrimination, the biggest outstanding question for real estate professionals will be how the landlords, lenders, and real estate agents who took advantage of the platform will be held culpable. As of now, there is no sign that they will be further prosecution of those who took advantage of the platform. That’s not to say that Facebook won’t be pressured to crack down on these advertisers on its own.

Facebook’s re-targeting options can be a great asset to real estate professionals, but it’s important to use them ethically. Don’t violate the historic legislation that seeks to protect at-risk communities from housing discrimination. Protect yourself, your business, and your clients, by staying informed about the laws so you can advertise ethically and responsibly on media platforms.

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