Already slammed with allegations over misuse of private information, Facebook now must confront another legal challenge, this time over allegedly discriminatory policies involving rental housing ads.
Four fair housing advocates have filed a federal lawsuit against the social media giant alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act. The groups say that Facebook allows landlords to manipulate demographics and exclude large populations from viewing ads for rental housing.
The National Fair Housing Alliance and three other member organizations brought the suit after they claim they caught Facebook in a sting operation by creating a fake realty firm and posting dozens of ads that excluded certain protected demographics, including families with children, mothers, women, and those interested in English as a second language.
After testing the ads in New York City, the groups submitted ads in other major cities, including Miami and San Antonio. They claim Facebook accepted the inappropriate ads within minutes to one hour.
The groups submitted as evidence screenshots of Facebook’s platform that provides advertisers with a pre-populated list of hundreds of demographics, behaviors, and interests, as well as several options which allow users to hone down and target the desired demographics who would have access to the ads — and those who would be excluded from viewing them.
The allegations center around the use of a highly-targeted database of personalized user data. According to the complaint, Facebook has been warned in the past about discriminatory rental and real estate sales advertising. While some corrections have been made to limit ads that contain racially discriminatory language and inappropriate demographic targeting, the complaint alleges that Facebook still maintains a policy of allowing discrimination based on sex, disability, and national origin, which is prohibited by the Fair Housing Act.
Fair Housing laws apply not only to the person posting the ad, but to anyone who publishes it.
The complaint alleges that advertisers are encouraged to select certain interest groups and exclude others, such as parents with toddlers. Other examples include interest in Disabled American Veteran, Disabled Parking Permit, Disability.gov, Telemundo, and English as a second language.
“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,” said Lisa Rice, NFHA’s President and CEO.
Fred Freiberg, the Executive Director of The Fair Housing Justice Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization and another plaintiff in the lawsuit, adds, “Facebook’s platform is the virtual equivalent of posting a for-rent sign that says No Families with Young Kids or No Women, but it does so in an insidious and stealth manner so that people have no clue they have been excluded on the basis of family status or sex.”
According to a lawyer representing the housing advocates, Facebook has been aware of civil rights violations for years, but refused to change its policies voluntarily. She is asking the court to:
Declare that Facebook’s policy violates the law;
Issue an injunction barring Facebook from continuing the practice; and
Order Facebook to remove checkboxes, list selection categories and other content that allow landlords and others to exclude certain populations.
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