WASHINGTON — The Trump administration charged Facebook on Thursday morning with violating fair housing laws by allowing advertisers to avoid showing housing ads to people because of their race, religion, gender, and other traits.
“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” Housing and Urban Development 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 department’s charges Thursday come after HUD filed a complaint against Facebook in August last year, after a two-year initial investigation started under the Obama administration. The company’s ad-targeting function has been a point of criticism for years. In 2016, ProPublica detailed HUD’s concerns about Facebook’s ethnic-based targeting. In 2018, Facebook said it would remove 5,000 ad-targeting options to prevent discrimination, including against some ethnic and religious groups.
A HUD official told BuzzFeed News the agency was not convinced that those moves from Facebook were addressing the problem adequately.
“They have over the years removed some of the terms, they actually change quite frequently the available terms,” the official said. “The department issued the charge today because we don’t believe the commitments that Facebook has made to date fully address the scope of discrimination on the platform.”
The charge says Facebook “offered advertisers hundreds of thousands of attributes from which to choose, for example to exclude ‘women in the workforce,’ ‘moms of grade school kids,’ ‘foreigners,’ ‘Puerto Rico Islanders,’ or people interested in ‘parenting,’ ‘accessibility,’ ‘service animal,’ ‘Hijab Fashion,’ or ‘Hispanic Culture.’ Respondent also has offered advertisers the ability to limit the audience of an ad by selecting to include only those classified as, for example, ‘Christian’ or ‘Childfree.’”
HUD said Facebook also allowed advertisers to literally draw a red line around neighborhoods to exclude them from their housing ads.
A spokesperson for Facebook said the company was “surprised” by the charges.
“We’re surprised by HUD’s decision, as we’ve been working with them to address their concerns and have taken significant steps to prevent ads discrimination,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement, citing the changes the company made last week as a result of a settlement with civil rights groups, including the ACLU and the National Fair Housing Alliance. Facebook said as part of the settlement it would no longer allow people advertising housing, job, and credit advertisers to target people by age, gender, or zip code.
Facebook had been in contact with HUD since it filed the August complaint, but was wary of sharing large amounts of data on ad-targeting with the agency. “While we were eager to find a solution, HUD insisted on access to sensitive information — like user data — without adequate safeguards,” Facebook said in its statement.
“Our policies already prohibit advertisers from using our tools to discriminate. We’ve removed thousands of categories from targeting related to protected classes such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion. But we can do better,” Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote last week, adding that Facebook is building a tool for users to search for housing ads targeted to different parts of the country, even if they’re not directly shown the ads.
“HUD is building on what the National Fair Housing Alliance and the other plaintiffs started as far as our settlement last week,” David Berman, an attorney representing the National Fair Housing Alliance, told BuzzFeed News after Thursday’s charges were announced.
Berman said the government agency “has investigatory powers that a private litigant does not to sort of pull the curtain back and get a look” at how the platform works and what options are provided to advertisers.
HUD is seeking “appropriate relief for the harm that has been caused and an assurance that the discrimination will not continue,” the agency official said.
The charges come as a result of what’s called a “secretary-initiated complaint” at HUD, an avenue that previous secretaries have used on average 10 times per year, the Washington Post reported, and is considered a powerful tool to set broad precedents to protect groups of people from housing discrimination. The Facebook case is the only secretary-initiated complaint that Carson has pursued in his more than two years as HUD secretary.
Ryan Mac contributed reporting to this story.