Facebook has gotten away with a lot — from continuous privacy breaches to questionable advertising systems — but it seems the government’s patience is wearing thin. Today, the Department of Housing and Urban development hit Facebook with a lawsuit, saying the social media giant participates in housing discrimination.
HUD’s actions are a follow up to a complaint filed in August 2018, that stated there was evidence to believe Facebook violated the Fair Housing Act. According to a press release, HUD alleges that Facebook’s ad system unlawfully discriminates by barring certain people from seeing listings.
In addition, HUD says that Facebook gathers data about users, which it then uses to figure out which of its users can view housing-related ads.
“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”
The action by HUD today is historic. As The Verge’s Russell Brandom pointed out, this is the first time federal discrimination charges have been centered around targeted advertising.
Concerns around Facebook’s ad system had been building long before HUD’s 2018 complaint. Back in 2016, ProPublica found that Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude users by race. Although Facebook claimed it would step up to address the issue, ProPublica released another report in 2017 that said it was still happening.
Last week, Facebook settled a historic civil rights lawsuit over its discriminatory ad practices. The American Civil Liberties Union filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the company on behalf of the Communications Workers of America and other individuals.
The ACLU’s complaints were similar to HUD, noting that Facebook allows discrimination in its job and housing ads based along protected categories such as race, religion, age, and gender.
That settlement required Facebook to overhaul it’s ad system — a historic moment for civil right advocates. Facebook plans to get rid of targeted advertising for housing, credit, or job ads — but anyone not creating those types of ads will be able to continue using it.
Obviously, though, this settlement wasn’t enough to appease the US government — which is fair. ProPublica’s original report noted that Facebook was in violation of the Fair Housing Act, so the company has had fair warning.
As algorithms become commonplace, people have to realize ways they can simply give old systems of oppression a digital upgrade. Facebook probably isn’t the only online company using sketchy ad practices, but suing them sets an important precedent for how digital companies must behave in the future.