Facebook accused of allowing discrimination in housing ads

The National Fair Housing Alliance and some of its affiliate fair housing advocacy organizations in March filed a federal lawsuit with allegations that, Facebook enables housing discrimination. This the organization claim that Facebook does so by allowing real estate professionals to exclude segments of the audiences protected by the Federal fair housing laws. According to the lawsuit, NHFA was able to bar families with children and women from receiving ads as well as the users with interests based on some factors such as disability and the national origin.

This lawsuit comes in after months of investigations and reporting from ProPublica in 2016 and 2017, a journalism firm that investigated these potential discriminatory practices. Since then, HUD has been actively investigating Facebook for these alleged discriminatory practices, the test results from the investigation proved that ad targeting made it possible for most people to be excluded from the ads. Given that Facebook is a large company with over 2 billion active users, this means that there is a high probability of the social media giant to be in violation of the Fair Housing act.

Facebook has done nothing yet but to give promises that it would look into the matter. The simple reason that advertisers are able to exclude people falling within certain categories protected under the federal and the state fair housing laws points out that the problem is still deep rooted into the system. Since the spring of 2016, Facebook has been aware of this problem but the company has not yet been able to solve it.

Last year, the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development did frustrate many Fair Housing Advocates with its decision to close its investigations related to Facebook advertising. Citing new information that justifies further investigations, the HUD secretary Ben Carson ordered probing into whether Facebook was in violation of the Fair-housing laws. The investigations were frozen last year in November and since the initial investigations, more revelations had been made which called for serious scrutiny into the matter.

In November, Facebook assured that it had placed safeguards to prevent marginalization of any kind, however, due to a “technical glitch” the practice still continued. Increased scrutiny of the platforms like Facebook might be the only way to ensure that these companies are in compliance with the law. Facebook, through its ad platform and with the ad-targeting options, realtors can be able to narrow down their ads to bar certain people/groups among others, blacks, Hispanics and the Asian American. This goes down further into excluding people with disabilities.

Because of the ease of the Tech, violations of such nature can occur innocently enough. Most agents will be in violations of the Civil law without even noticing it and the potential for illegal discrimination goes beyond Facebook and it can arise whenever one uses a targeting mechanism.

It is unlawful to create a notice that is virtually exclusive, that is what targeted marketing does. Broadly marketing your listings through the print or digital platforms is a sure way to grow your business ethically. The incredible granularity of the ad targeting that includes sensitive information like age, gender and the ethnic affinity is attractive to many businesses that do not want to waste efforts trying to make their ads seen by people who may not need them. However, the civil rights law put a ban on discrimination of any kind in ads related to housing and employment and credit.

The scrutiny surrounding the ads will in effect lead to more changes to the ad platform and that would mean removal of the ad targeting criteria. If that occurs, advertisers will no longer be able use targeted marketing. For those using the platform, this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world!