Facebook hit with housing discrimination charge by US government

The government says Facebook violates the Fair Housing Act by allowing ads to target certain groups of people and exclude others.

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"Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live," HUD Secretary Ben Carson says.

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The US Department of Housing and Urban Development charged Facebook on Thursday with allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act through targeted ads.

The charge follows an August 2018 complaint that alleged the social network lets landlords and home sellers engage in housing discrimination through advertising that can exclude people based on race, national origin, religion, gender or disability.

"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 initial complaint came after a ProPublica investigation in 2016 showed that housing advertisements could be targeted at and away from specific groups. ProPublica followed up a year later, showing that the targeting hadn't stopped.

According to HUD's lawsuit, Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude people who were born outside the US, non-Christians, interested in accessibility issues or interested in Latino culture. HUD also accuses Facebook of allowing advertisers to exclude people based on their neighborhoods or whether they have children.

"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," HUD general counsel Paul Compton said in a statement. "Just because a process to deliver advertising is opaque and complex doesn't mean that it exempts Facebook and others from our scrutiny and the law of the land."

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Facebook said it has been trying to work with HUD to prevent discrimination.

"While we were eager to find a solution, HUD insisted on access to sensitive information -- like user data -- without adequate safeguards. We're disappointed by today's developments, but we'll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues," a company spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

The social media giant also said that it had reached "historic agreements" with the National Fair Housing Alliance, the ACLU and other advocacy groups on changes to its advertising system.

The charge marks the latest incident that calls into question how Facebook conducts its business. It's been under fire over how it collects user data for the past year.

Here is HUD's filing:

First published at 5:11 a.m. PT.
Updates, 6:16 a.m. and 7:45 a.m.: Adds more details, Facebook's comment and HUD's filing.