HUD Charges Facebook With Housing Discrimination

The government agency says that the social media behemoth violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against users through its advertising platform.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson. Photo via HUD’s official Flickr account

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has announced that it is charging social media giant Facebook with violating the Fair Housing Act.

In a charge submitted to Facebook on March 28th, HUD says the company has been unlawfully discriminating against users based on race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, sex and disability by restricting who can view housing-related ads on the site’s advertising platforms and across the internet.

According to HUD, Facebook violated the landmark 1968 Fair Housing Act by “encouraging, enabling, and causing housing discrimination” through the company’s ad platform.

HUD says Facebook enabled advertisers who used the site to market properties to exclude people whom Facebook classified as parents, non-Christian, non-American-born, interested in accessibility, interested in Hispanic culture, or a wide variety of other interests that fall within the Fair Housing Act’s protected classes. Other issues within the charge include allegations that Facebook enabled advertisers to exclude users based on their neighborhood and that Facebook gave advertisers the option to show ads only to men or only to women.

“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson, in prepared remarks. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.” 

LOOKING FOR ANSWERS

HUD has been investigating Facebook’s ad platform since last August, when the Department of Justice and HUD filed a statement of interest in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on behalf of several private litigants challenging the company’s advertising practices.

The charge against Facebook will be heard by a U.S. administrative law judge unless either party elects to have the case heard in federal district court. If an administrative law judge does indeed find after a hearing that discrimination occurred, he can award damages for harm caused by it.

Representatives from Facebook did not respond to a request for comment on the charge.

In this new high-tech era of online marketing that has seen Google and Facebook gobble up the largest share of digital advertising, government agencies like HUD are keeping an eye on the rule of law.

“Even as we confront new technologies, the fair housing laws enacted over half a century ago remain clear—discrimination in housing-related advertising is against the law,” said HUD General Counsel Paul Compton, in prepared remarks.