Facebook Hit With Bias Charge by US Housing Agency

A man uses a computer showing Facebook ad preferences pages in San Francisco on March 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Federal housing authorities leveled a discrimination charge Thursday on the heels of Facebook’s settlement with groups that said its targeted-advertising algorithms could be manipulated to exclude minorities.

Announcing the results of an investigation it began in August 2018, the Department of Housing and Urban Development said this morning that Facebook users trying to view housing-related ads faced discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, sex and disability, in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

News of the charge appeared to rattle Facebook, which just settled related claims from interest groups less than a week ago.

“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,” Facebook said in a statement emailed by a spokeswoman. “Last year we eliminated thousands of targeting options that could potentially be misused, and just last week we reached historic agreements with the National Fair Housing Alliance, ACLU, and others that change the way housing, credit, and employment ads can be run on Facebook.” 

As described in the government’s charge, Facebook allowed customers of its advertisement portal to discriminate against certain populations. In promoting housing-related services such as mortgages from large national lenders, rental houses from large real estate listing services, and specific houses for sale from real estate agents, advertisers could target their campaigns to filter out audiences they would deem undesirable. 

The HUD said Facebook gave advertisers the option to show ads not just to men or women only, but to specific subsets such as “women in the workforce,” “moms of grade school kids,” “foreigners,” and “Puerto Rico islanders.” It also says advertisers could filter by whether people were or were not interested in “parenting,” “accessibility,” “service animal,” “Hijab fashion” or “Hispanic culture.”

Facebook also allowed advertisers to draw red lines around neighborhoods on a map, thereby excluding people based on their neighborhood, according to the HUD’s charge.

“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said Thursday 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.”

Relying on the millions of data points it collects on its users, Facebook promotes its advertising platform by saying it can micro-target audiences.

Promotional materials for Facebook’s service have touted in part: “Most online advertising tools have limited targeting options … like location, age, gender, interests and potentially a few others … But Facebook is different. People on Facebook share their true identities, interests, life events and more.”

Facebook claims to be able to reach people based on zip code, age, gender, and language, as well as by using personal data gained through the platform — based on interests, activities, pages and purchase behaviors that may be linked to a person’s profile.

The HUD said its investigation found that Facebook also “charges advertisers different prices to show the same ad to different users.” Prices vary based on how likely users are to interact with the ads — a factor that is determined by a user’s sex among other factors.

As part of its settlement last week with the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights and housing organizations, Facebook agreed to remove before September any discriminatory targeting options for housing, employment and credit advertisers. 

“We will continue to monitor the settlement’s implementation, which requires Facebook to study and report on algorithmic bias and any ongoing discriminatory impact of its targeting features,” Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, said in a statement Thursday. “The HUD complaint is certain to add much-needed pressure on Facebook to eradicate discrimination from its ad platform altogether, and we encourage the department to investigate the wide swath of online ad targeting platforms.”

Unless Facebook elects to have the case heard in U.S. District Court, where it could then face a damages award as well as fines if the HUD’s charge is substantiated, the HUD’s charge will likely go before an administrative law judge.

HUD trial attorney Ayelet Weiss did not respond immediately to an email requesting comment.

Facebook has said it would continue working with civil rights experts on the issues at stake.

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