The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has charged Facebook with racial discrimination, alleging that the company violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against people of color in targeted advertising related to housing.
The charge, filed on Thursday, penalizes Facebook for a practice that has been reported on for more than two years: The platform allowed advertisers to exclude people based on race, religion, familial status, sex and disability, and it allegedly used its own algorithms to classify people and discriminate based on those and other factors. ProPublica revealed the discriminatory practice in a 2016 investigation; the charge, however, was in direct response to a complaint filed in August 2018, after which HUD began its own probe.
“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.”
According to the HUD release:
Facebook enabled advertisers to exclude people whom Facebook classified as parents; non-American-born; non-Christian; interested in accessibility; interested in Hispanic culture; or a wide variety of other interests that closely align with the Fair Housing Act’s protected classes. …
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. 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.
The charge will now go in front of an administrative law judge, who will determine whether discrimination has occurred and award damages to parties that may have been harmed by the practice.
Facebook didn’t immediately respond to calls for comment from HuffPost, but a spokesperson told Reuters that the company was surprised by the decision and is cooperating with HUD. The company reportedly said last week that it was working on a new advertising portal that would restrict targeting options for advertisers.
Previously, the social media giant reached a $5 million settlement after civil rights groups in New York sued over its discriminatory housing practices, according to Gizmodo. Afterward, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, raised eyebrows when she congratulated herself for ending the company policy that led to the lawsuit in the first place.
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing and related services, which includes online advertisements, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability or familial status.