Facebook’s Housing Discrimination Problem Not Solved

New allegations have emerged claiming that Facebook’s advertising platform is still allowing landlords and brokers to discriminate based on gender and family status. A group of fair housing organizations has filed a lawsuit against the company saying that Facebook’s actions are a violation of the Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination “based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin” from home rental and sale advertisements.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan by the National Fair Housing Alliance, along with three other groups. The housing groups behind the lawsuit found Facebook continues to let advertisers exclude users based on their gender, family status and other categories that could signal discriminatory intentions. They specifically found that Facebook’s advertising tools enable marketers to exclude women and families with children from seeing certain housing ads.

Facebook has repeatedly promised that it would crack down on advertisers who use its advertising tools to exclude certain demographics from seeing housing or employment ads. In 2016, it was found that Facebook was offering an ad customization option called “Ethnic Affinities” that let advertisers target and exclude specific groups for ads.

At the time, a Facebook spokesperson said, “Our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law. We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies.” The next year, an investigation by non-profit media outlet ProPublica found that advertisers could still buy home rental ads targeted toward audiences that specifically excluded viewers based on race or family status.

Diane L. Houk of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, one of the attorneys representing the housing groups, said, “Facebook has known for years that its advertising platform violates civil rights laws, but it has refused to change its ways on a voluntary basis. Facebook is not above the law and must answer these civil rights claims in court.”

Ms. Houk continued, “We want the court to order Facebook to develop a plan to remove any ability for advertisers to access Facebook’s checklists for excluding groups of people in the posting of housing-related ads. Because of Facebook’s impact on the housing market, we’ll ask the court to implement a plan of community education and outreach to housing providers to inform them of their obligation not to discriminate.”

Facebook is an advertising behemoth with more than two billion users a month. The social network earned more than $40 billion in revenue in 2017, nearly all of it by selling ads on its platform. A company spokesperson said, “We believe this lawsuit is without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously.”

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