In an unusual action against a social media company, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has announced a formal complaint against Facebook for “violating the Fair Housing Act by allowing landlords and home sellers to use its advertising platform to engage in housing discrimination.”
HUD claims Facebook enables advertisers to control which users receive housing-related ads based upon the recipient’s race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, disability, and/or zip code.
“Facebook then invites advertisers to express unlawful preferences by offering discriminatory options, allowing them to effectively limit housing options for these protected classes under the guise of ‘targeted advertising,’ ” the agency alleges.
“The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination including those who might limit or deny housing options with a click of a mouse,” Anna María Farías, HUD’s assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, said in a statement. “When Facebook uses the vast amount of personal data it collects to help advertisers to discriminate, it’s the same as slamming the door in someone’s face.”
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing transactions including print and online advertisement on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or familial status.
HUD’s secretary-initiated complaint follows the Department’s investigation into Facebook’s advertising platform, which includes targeting tools that enable advertisers to filter prospective tenants or homebuyers based on these protected classes.
For example, HUD’s complaint alleges Facebook’s platform violates the Fair Housing Act. It enables advertisers to, among other things:
display housing ads either only to men or women;
not show ads to Facebook users interested in an “assistance dog,” “mobility scooter,” “accessibility,” or “deaf culture”;
not show ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in “child care” or “parenting,” or show ads only to users with children above a specified age;
to display/not display ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in a particular place of worship, religion, or tenet, such as the “Christian Church,” “Sikhism,” “Hinduism,” or the “Bible”;
not show ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in “Latin America,” “Canada,” “Southeast Asia,” “China,” “Honduras,” or “Somalia”; and
draw a red line around zip codes and then not display ads to Facebook users who live in specific zip codes.
Additionally, Facebook promotes its advertising targeting platform for housing purposes with “success stories” for finding “the perfect homeowners,” “reaching home buyers,” “attracting renters,” and “personalizing property ads,” HUD says.
The secretary of HUD may file a fair housing complaint directly against those whom the Department believes may be in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
Secretary-initiated complaints are appropriate in cases, among others, involving significant issues that are national in scope or when the Department is made aware of potential violations of the Act and broad public interest relief is warranted or where HUD does not know of a specific aggrieved person or injured party that is willing or able to come forward. A Fair Housing Act complaint, including a secretary-initiated complaint, is not a determination of liability. A secretary-initiated complaint will result in a formal fact-finding investigation. The party against whom the complaint is filed will be provided notice and an opportunity to respond.
If HUD’s investigation results in a determination that reasonable cause exists that there has been a violation of the Fair Housing Act, a charge of discrimination may be filed. Throughout the process, the agency will seek conciliation and voluntary resolution. Charges may be resolved through settlement, through referral to the Department of Justice, or through an administrative determination.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act.
In addition to HUD’s action, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York filed a statement of interest, joined in by HUD, in U.S. District Court on behalf of a number of private litigants challenging Facebook’s advertising platform.