Facebook charged by HUD, Trump administration with housing discrimination

SAN FRANCISCO — The Department of Housing and Urban Development has charged Facebook with discrimination for allowing advertisers to restrict who can view housing ads. 

The civil charges came one week after the social media giant agreed to a sweeping settlement with civil rights and labor groups over the same issue. Announced Thursday, they come under the Fair Housing Act and accuse Facebook of unlawfully discriminating based on race, national origin, religion and more.  

“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement Thursday morning. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.” 

Facebook spokeswoman Elisabeth Diana said talks with HUD broke down when the agency insisted on viewing sensitive information such as user data “without adequate safeguards.”

“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,” Diana said in a statement. “We’re disappointed by today’s developments, but we’ll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues.”  

USA TODAY asked Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg about the HUD negotiations last week. She said Facebook was working to address HUD’s concerns.

As part of a settlement with civil rights and labor groups, Facebook agreed last week to remove age, gender and ZIP code targeting from housing, employment and credit ads and paid out just under $5 million. Facebook also said it would build a tool that allows people to search for all housing ads in the U.S.

The steps were the latest to contain a ballooning controversy over ad targeting that began in 2016 when news outlet ProPublica revealed it could buy housing ads to target Facebook users that excluded racial and ethnic groups.

The HUD investigation began under the Obama administration. The charges could be a warning shot to other technology companies that employ similar ad targeting tools.

Facebook’s practices violate The Fair Housing Act by allowing advertisers to exclude Facebook users who are parents, not born in the U.S., and those interested in a wide variety of topics including for example, accessibility or Hispanic culture, HUD alleges. These interests “closely align” with the housing act’s protected classes, HUD says.

Facebook also allowed advertisers to exclude those who see their ads based on neighborhoods, as well as to show ads to only men or only women, the agency said.

HUD and the Justice Department filed an administrative complaint in August 2018, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. 

An administrative law judge will now hear regulators’ charges, unless Facebook wants the case heard in federal court. The administrative law judge could award damages if after the hearing it’s determined discrimination did occur.

Facebook and President Trump have not been on friendly terms recently. Last week, the president tweeted that “Facebook, Google and Twitter, not to mention the Corrupt Media, are soo on the side of the Radical Left Democrats.”

Also last week, the social network had to apologize to the White House’s social media director for blocking his Facebook page.

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