(Reuters) – The Trump administration accused Facebook Inc on Thursday of sale of targeted advertising that discriminated on the basis of race in violation of the federal Fair housing act.
Seeking damages and unspecified relief for the harm caused, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said in its civil responsibility that Facebook also restricted who could see housing-related advertisements on the basis of national origin, religion, familial status, gender, and disability.
Facebook said that it had worked with HUD to address the concerns and was surprised by the department’s decision to issue costs, taken into account “important steps” to prevent ads that discriminate between the platforms.
The company also said that HUD had “insisted on access to sensitive data, such as data of the user – without adequate safeguards.” HUD claims Facebook mines data about its users and then uses machine learning to predict their responses to ads in ways that can recreate the groups defined by protected class.
The social media giant last week agreed to review its paid ad platform as part of a broad settlement with the AMERICAN civil rights groups, filed five separate lawsuits accusing the company of enabling discrimination in the advertising.
Under U.S. law, including the federal Fair housing act, it is forbidden to publish certain types of ads, including online ads – if they have a preference based on race, religion, gender or other specific formats.
As part of last week’s settlement, Facebook said that it would lead to a new advertising portal for ads that are linked to housing and employment that would limit targeting options for advertisers. It also promised to build a tool that would allow users to search for all current housing ads in the United States, regardless of whether the ads were aimed at them.
The HUD payment, said Facebook enabled advertisers to exclude people who the social network of the data classified as parents, not american-born, non-Christian, or a variety of other interests that are more closely aligned with the Fair housing act’s protected classes.
“Facebook is the discrimination of people based on who they are and where they live,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said. “With the help of a computer to restrict a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”
Advertising practices on the world’s largest social network, with 2.7 billion users, and nearly $56 billion in annual revenue, are under the microscope for about two years, amidst growing dissatisfaction about Facebook’s approach to privacy and user data.
News organization ProPublica reported as far back as 2016 that advertisers can target ads via Facebook, based on self-reported tasks, even if the task was “Jew hater.”
ProPublica later reported that it was able to buy a discriminatory housing ads and slip them in the past, Facebook’s review process, despite the company claiming that it was blocking these ads.
Since then, Facebook has faced legal pressure over the issue of the National Fair Housing Alliance, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Communications Workers of America, among other groups and individuals.
The ACLU welcomed HUD of the complaint and says it will add “much-needed pressure” on the company at the top of last week’s settlement. There is in the department of investigations of other online advertising platforms.
“Although the settlement was reached with Facebook will result in the removal of many of the most disturbing of Facebook’ s ad practices, there is still much work to do,” Galen Sherwin, ACLU lawyer, said in a statement.
Researchers have said that Google, Facebook’s biggest competitor in the field of online advertising, can also be liable under the Fair housing act for how it allows gender targeting, but the company does not face similar legal pressure.
The Facebook logo is displayed on a woman’s glasses in this picture, figure 3 June 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/Illustration
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The civil complaint against Facebook follows an investigation by HUD in August, when a formal complaint is filed against Facebook for violating the Fair housing act as landlords and home sellers to make use of the advertising platform to engage in housing discrimination.
The charges will be heard by a U.S. law administrative judge, who can award compensation for the damage caused by the discrimination, together with penalties and injunctive and other equitable relief.
Reporting by Akanksha Rana, Bengaluru and Katie Paul in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Paresh Dave in San Francisco; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty, Bernard Orr and Dan Grebler