Facebook charged with violating Fair Housing Act through discriminatory ad targeting

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development is charging Facebook with slew of violations pertaining to its targeted ad practices.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on Thursday unleashed a legal challenge against Facebook for its ad-targeting practices, accusing the social network of discriminating against certain demographics in ads for housing. HUD Secretary Ben Carson is charging Facebook with violating the Fair Housing Act by allowing advertisers to exclude groups listed as protected classes in the Fair Housing Act from Facebook classified ads, including parents, non-Christians, and non-American born.

HUD is also charging that Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude people based on neighborhoods, while also allegedly giving advertisers the option of showing ads only to men or only to women. Further, HUD asserts that Facebook's advertising algorithms unlawfully groups users by characteristics, and thereby presumes that those groups have a shared interest or disinterest in housing-related ads. 

"HUD claims Facebook combines data it collects about user attributes and behavior with data it obtains about user behavior on other websites and in the non-digital world," according to the HUD press release. "Facebook then allegedly uses machine learning and other prediction techniques to classify and group users to project each user's likely response to a given ad, and in doing so, may recreate groupings defined by their protected class." 

This isn't Facebook's first clash with HUD over its targeted ad practices. In 2018, HUD filed a similar complaint against Facebook for allegedly excluding certain groups from viewing housing ads. In response, Facebook removed over 5,000 ad targeting options that had the potential to discriminate against audiences of certain groups.

Just over a week ago, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg announced that Facebook would change its ad-targeting system so that housing, employment, and credit ads on the social media platform would no longer have the option to be selectively shown to certain ethnicity, gender, or age groups. 

The changes stem from Facebook's $5 million settlement with several groups, including the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Communication Workers of America (CWA), over the social network's alleged ad discrimination against minorities.

When reached for comment, a Facebook spokesperson pointed to the company's ongoing efforts to improve its ad practices, noting that it's been working with HUD directly. 

"We're surprised by HUD's decision, as we've been working with them to address their concerns and have taken significant steps to prevent ads discrimination," said the spokesperson. "Last year we eliminated thousands of targeting options that could potentially be misused, and just last week we reached historic agreements with the National Fair Housing Alliance, ACLU, and others."

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