Risk & Compliance

Facebook Hit with Discrimination Lawsuit

HUD filed civil charges alleging the company allowed employers and landlords to target ads based on race.
Lauren MuskettMarch 28, 2019
Facebook Hit with Discrimination Lawsuit

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has charged Facebook with discrimination over its ad-targeting system. In a civil complaint, HUD said it was seeking damages for policies that let employers and landlords limit their audiences on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender.

Facebook settled a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union last week over the same issue.

“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson added 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.”

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HUD said Facebook was allowing advertisers to exclude audiences based on whether they were classified as parents, non-American-born, non-Christian, interested in accessibility, interested in Hispanic culture, or a variety of other interests that closely align with the Fair Housing Act’s protected classes.

A Facebook spokesperson said the company was surprised by the charges.

“While we were eager to find a solution, HUD insisted on access to sensitive information — like user data — without adequate safeguards,” the spokesperson said. “We’re disappointed by today’s developments, but we’ll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues,” the company said.

Facebook is facing investigations in Europe over its privacy protections as well.

In a blog post last week, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said the company was changing the way it managed housing, employment, and credit ads on its platform as a result of settlements and input from civil rights experts.

“There is a long history of discrimination in the areas of housing, employment, and credit, and this harmful behavior should not happen through Facebook ads,” Sandberg wrote. “We’ve removed thousands of categories from targeting related to protected classes such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion. But we can do better.”

HUD said the case would be heard by a federal administrative law judge barring a move by either party for it to be heard in federal district court instead.

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