SAN JOSE (CN) — Facebook users claim in a new class action the social network enables discrimination by letting advertisers block users who are black or immigrants from seeing ads for jobs and housing.
Lead plaintiff Suzanne-Juliette Mobley, a black New Orleans resident, sued the social network in federal court on Thursday, less than a week after ProPublica published an investigation on Facebook's advertising practices.
The lawsuit also names up to 9,999 doe defendants as advertisers who allegedly used Facebook's platform to discriminate based on race, gender, national origin and other protected attributes.
The plaintiffs claim allowing advertisers to block users from seeing ads based on their "affinity groups," which extrapolate ethnicity, family status and other traits from a user's Facebook activity, violates the Fair Housing Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which forbids hiring discrimination based on sex, race, religion or national origin.
The Fair Housing Act states it is unlawful to "cause to be made, printed or published any notice, statement or advertisement with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates a preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin."
In 2014, the Justice Department raised fines for Fair Housing Act violations from $55,000 to $75,000 for a first offense and increased the maximum for subsequent offenses to $150,000.
Facebook's advertising platform gives advertisers the power to target users that recently expressed interest in or liked pages relating to things like "buying a house" or "job hunting."
However, the platform also lets advertisers exclude certain groups from seeing ads, including users assigned the affinity groups of African American, Asian American, and Hispanic. Other affinity groups that can be excluded include Christians, Muslims, divorced, parents, moms and expats, or immigrants, according to the lawsuit.
"There is no option in Facebook's platform to exclude the 'demographic' of White or Caucasian Americans from the target audience," the 14-page lawsuit states.
Civil rights lawyer John Relman told ProPublica that Facebook's advertising practices were "about as blatant a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act as one can find."
A Facebook representative disagreed. "The lawsuit is utterly without merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously," the representative said in an email. "Multicultural marketing is a common practice in the ad industry and helps brands reach audiences with more relevant advertising. Our policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate, and they require compliance with the law."
The company's privacy and public policy manager, Steve Satterfield, also told ProPublica that its policies prohibit using targeting options to discriminate and that Facebook takes "a strong stand" against advertisers that misuse its platform.
Excluding certain groups from seeing ads is not about discrimination, Satterfield said, but rather is used to measure the success of marketing campaigns among different target audiences — such as ads running in English versus ads in Spanish.
The social network's "affinity groups" are not the same as race, Satterfield argued. Facebook does not ask members about race, but rather categorizes users in groups based on their user activity.
Still, Mobley and two other named plaintiffs claim they were blocked from seeing ads during times when they were searching for housing and jobs because of their race and other protected attributes.
The lawsuit claims the number of people affected by Facebook's alleged discriminatory conduct could be in the tens of millions or more.
The plaintiffs seek class certification, judgment against Facebook, an injunction barring continuing discriminatory advertising, statutory damages and civil penalties.
Mobley and two other named plaintiffs — Karen Savage and Vitor Onuoha — are represented by William Most of New Orleans and Jason Flanders of Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group in Albany, California.