Facebook allows advertisers to exclude people from seeing housing ads based on their race, religion, background and other characteristics, a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says.
The social media giant's practices amount to housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act, according to the suit filed Thursday. The 1968 act makes it illegal to discriminate against someone renting or buying a home based on their race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status or disability.
Facebook said it was surprised by the decision from HUD, and noted that it has already been working with the department to address its concerns. It says it has already eliminated thousands of targeting options that could be subject to misuse.
"While we were eager to find a solution, HUD insisted on access to sensitive information—like user data—without adequate safeguards," the company said. "We're disappointed by today's developments, but we'll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues."
HUD says Facebook has been "encouraging, enabling, and causing housing discrimination through the company's advertising platform." It says real estate agents, lenders and landlords are able to use Facebook to exclude members of different protected groups from the "eligible audience"––the group of users who might see an ad.
Facebook's platform for placing ads allows users to geographically exclude potential audiences by drawing red lines around areas, HUD says. Drop-down menus enable advertisers to rule out groups like "Puerto Rico islanders" or "moms with grade school kids." Advertisers can exclude users based on interests such as "hijab fashion" and "Hispanic culture."
"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."
The charges stemmed from a complaint filed with HUD by the assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity in August. The names of advertisers that used the targeted ad tools were not listed in the suit.