Housing Department Slaps Facebook With Discrimination Charge

Mar 28, 2019
Originally published on March 28, 2019 2:59 pm

Updated at 2:58 p.m. ET

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is suing social media giant Facebook for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act.

HUD says Facebook does so by "encouraging, enabling and causing housing discrimination" when it allows companies that use their platform to improperly shield who can see certain housing ads.

In the charging document, HUD accuses Facebook of unlawfully discriminating against people based on race, religion, familial status, disability and other characteristics that closely align with the 1968 Fair House Act's protected classes.

HUD also alleges Facebook allowed advertisers certain tools on their advertising platform that could exclude people who were classified as "non-American-born," "non-Christian" or "interested in Hispanic culture," among other things. It also said advertisers could exclude people based on ZIP code, essentially "drawing a red line around those neighborhoods on a map."

Using a computer to limit a person's housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone's face. - HUD Secretary Ben Carson

"Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live," HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement.

"Using a computer to limit a person's housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone's face."

(Note: Facebook is among NPR's financial sponsors.)

HUD said that the charges would be heard by a U.S. administrative law judge or in federal district court.

The charges come on the heels of a complaint HUD filed in August, saying "reasonable cause exists" that a violation had occurred.

Facebook appeared caught off guard by the announcement.

"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," Facebook said in a statement.

"While we were eager to find a solution," Facebook added. "HUD insisted on access to sensitive information — like user data — without adequate safeguards. We're disappointed by today's developments, but we'll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues."

Housing Department officials say they still see evidence of discrimination on Facebook's platforms and as result felt compelled to move forward with the charges. There is a period of about three weeks that either Facebook or HUD can move to have the case heard in federal court, according to HUD officials.

An injunction or civil penalties, which could include a payment to those who may have been harmed by Facebook's ad targeting practices, are all possible outcomes should this case be taken up by the courts.

Last week, Facebook said it would be settling lawsuits for just under $5 million with several civil rights and housing advocates, including the National Fair Housing Alliance.

In that announcement, Facebook said "we can do better" and promised to make changes to its platform, including not allowing housing advertisers to "target by age, gender or ZIP code."

It also said advertisers that offer housing, employment and credit items "will have a much smaller set" of targeting criteria to choose from.

Facebook has been facing housing discrimination allegations for years.

As part its investigation into Facebook's ad-targeting practices, ProPublica discovered in 2016, the company allowed advertisers access filters it referred to as "Ethnic Affinities." After that report, Facebook promised reforms.

But in a follow-up report, also by ProPublica found "a significant lapse" in Facebook's monitoring of advertisers.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Facebook says that it wants to make it harder for advertisers to use Facebook as a tool for discrimination. But whatever it's trying was apparently too little for the Department of Housing and Urban Development because HUD says it is charging Facebook with violating the Fair Housing Act over the way that it allowed advertisers to target and exclude some users. We should note before going on that Facebook is one of NPR's financial supporters. We are nevertheless reporting independently on it, and NPR's Brakkton Booker is here. Brakkton, good morning.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: According to HUD, how does Facebook discriminate?

BOOKER: Well, as you said in the intro there, HUD is saying that Facebook violated the Fair Housing Act. And that, of course, is a federal protection that was established in 1968. It protects homebuyers and renters from being discriminated against on the basis of race and religion and other protected classes. Now, HUD is saying that Facebook is - allows advertisers to shield who can see which ads appear on their platform on the basis of race.

INSKEEP: Do you mean that if an advertiser only wanted white people to see an apartment ad - just to give a hypothetical - that Facebook would allow that to happen?

BOOKER: Yes, there are certain things that advertisers can click on the platform that allow certain people to see. So if they are - if a Facebook user kind of identifies as a African-American dog-lover and Facebook only wants to appear to, say, an Anglo cat-lover, they can select different things on the platform that allows - that shields certain people from seeing certain ads on their platform.

INSKEEP: On the most basic level, I'm genuinely curious how Facebook is convinced it knows the race of people because, of course, the platform asks for your name, asks for your phone number, asks for your birthday, a lot of other things. I don't know if they directly ask for race, but they must get it from somewhere.

BOOKER: Well, HUD is saying in their charging document that Facebook mined extensive data about users and uses that data to determine which users can see housing-related ads. So in theory, because of things that you like and things that you share, there are some kind of algorithms that allow advertisers and Facebook to know kind of who these people are.

INSKEEP: One of the reasons that this feels meaningful to me, Brakkton, is that I've done a lot of reporting on discriminatory housing or some reporting on discriminatory housing in the past and spoke with real estate brokers around Chicago who described the process of racial steering. Like, who do you show a house to? Who do you hint to about whether they should or shouldn't live in a particular neighborhood? It can be very subtle, but very powerful in segregating neighborhoods. You're telling me that is exactly what Facebook did, according to HUD.

BOOKER: Well, it's really the advertiser. So it's the advertiser's...

INSKEEP: Facebook allowed...

BOOKER: Allow - allows advertisers - when they want to create an ad, when they're trying to look for the perfect tenant or the perfect homebuyer, they can start to select certain characteristics to make sure that, you know, the people that are seeing these ads are kind of the target audience that they want.

INSKEEP: And the excluded person doesn't even know they're being excluded.

BOOKER: They don't know. They don't know.

INSKEEP: They don't see the ad. They never see the availability. What has Facebook been saying about these accusations, which I think have been out for a little while?

BOOKER: Yes, so this comes on the heels of what Facebook and some housing advocates say was a historic settlement that happened last week. Facebook said they were going to do better, and they were going to make changes to the platform to not allow advertisers to selective - to...

INSKEEP: Selectively - yeah.

BOOKER: ...Selectively put out their ads. So they said they were making changes. They vowed to do better, and they said these changes are going to come about later on this year.

INSKEEP: And now HUD's coming after them. Brakkton, thanks so much - really appreciate it.

BOOKER: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Brakkton Booker. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.