Federal regulators have served Facebook with an official complaint, alleging that the company’s advertising tools enabled landlords to engage in housing discrimination by allowing them to exclude certain audiences.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said in a complaint issued Friday that the advertising targeting systems made it possible for more disadvantaged communities, such as people with disabilities or young families, to be unable to see certain housing ads.
“Facebook unlawfully discriminates by enabling advertisers to restrict which Facebook users receive housing-related ads based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin and disability,” the complaint reads. “Facebook effectuates the delivery of housing-related ads to certain users and not others based on those users’ protected traits.”
HUD Assistant Secretary Anna María Farias said on Friday that the practice was equivalent to “slamming the door in someone’s face” and violated the Fair Housing Act.
Facebook has often claimed that it is merely a medium for communication, and therefore isn’t liable for the problems on its platform — be it hate speech or housing discrimination. However, in a separate lawsuit filed in March, the Justice Department argues that because Facebook takes users’ data and helps to customize ads for landlords and real estate brokers, it is effectively becoming a content creator.
Facebook says it is working with HUD to strengthen its systems and prevent official misuse in the future. The company also has the chance to respond to the complaint before HUD decides whether or not to file formal charges.
This isn’t the first time Silicon Valley’s products have been used to propagate racism and discrimination. Airbnb has been repeatedly in the cross-hairs here, with a 2014 study finding that black hosts earn less than their white counterparts. In 2015, another study found that hosts would discriminate against black guests on the basis of their names. In one 2017 incident, an Airbnb host who cancelled a reservation and used a racist remark against their would-be guest was fined $5,000 for discrimination.
In response, Airbnb has partnered with the NAACP to improve action against discrimination, and said they will gift 20 percent of its earnings from rentals in communities of color to the NAACP. The company has also implemented a new diversity policy which mandates more minority candidate pools for senior-level positions.