(CN) – Taking aim at the targeted-advertising algorithms that put Facebook on top of modern-day marketing, several fair-housing advocates brought a federal complaint Tuesday over virtual redlining.
Represented by the firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, the National Fair Housing Alliance and three other groups say Facebook faces the same obligations as any other platform to deny discriminatory advertising.
Rather than weeding it out, however, the complaint says Facebook encourages it, offering advertising tools to realtors that let them cater their ads for specific audiences while excluding protected groups.
To test the theory, according to the complaint, the four organizations created dozens of fictitious ads for supposed properties in New York, Washington, D.C., Miami and San Antonio. The groups found that Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude families with children or women from seeing the housing ads. They were also able to exclude users with interests in disabilities or national origin based on their Facebook profile.
“Then Facebook approves and permits advertisers to publish these ads in a discriminatory manner without consumers ever knowing they have been excluded,” the 52-page complaint states.
Though Facebook is headquartered in Menlo Park, California, the housing groups brought their suit in Manhattan, which they note is the largest housing market in the country. They say jurisdiction is proper in the Big Apple because Facebook has conducted advertising, engineering and other activities from its Madison Avenue office since 2012.
Facebook on Tuesday denied the suit’s allegations. “There is absolutely no place for discrimination on Facebook,” spokeswoman Rachel Colson said in an email. “We believe this lawsuit is without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously.”
Meanwhile the groups note that the outlet ProPublica put Facebook on notice back in 2016 about its fair-housing problems in its advertising platform.
“Although Facebook stopped approving housing advertisements that used its ‘ethnic affinity’ option in late 2017, it continues to create and develop content that facilitates advertisers excluding certain audiences based on legally protected characteristics,” the complaint states.
Based on messages Facebook sent the alliance about one of its fictitious ads, however, the complaint says Facebook “still allows previously existing ads that excluded or targeted on these bases to continue to do so.”
Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the alliance, spoke about Tuesday’s case in the context of Facebook’s handling of former advertising client Cambridge Analytica.
Earlier this month, a whistleblower for the political consulting firm revealed that Cambridge Analytica harvested personal data from up to 50 million Facebook users to target ads for clients including Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
“Amid growing public concern in the past weeks that Facebook has mishandled users’ data, our investigation shows that Facebook also allows and even encourages its paid advertisers to discriminate using its vast trove of personal data,” Rice said in a statement. “Facebook’s use and abuse of user data for discriminatory purposes needs to stop. It is already a challenge for women, families with children, people with disabilities and other under-served groups to find housing. Facebook’s platform that excludes these consumers from ever seeing certain ads to rent or buy housing must be changed immediately. Facebook ought to be opening doors to housing opportunities instead of closing them.”
The alliance’s suit seeks punitive damages and an injunction.