Facebook helps landlords break fair housing laws

To settle a lawsuit, the troubled tech company agrees to change its advertising platform

Published March 21, 2019 7:30AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Sean Gallup)
(Getty/Sean Gallup)

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The swirl of ill will these days about Facebook and other big social media companies sometimes feels a little vague – from dissatisfaction with removing all traces of the New Zealand massacre live stream to discomfort with misuse of data that somehow still seems difficult to put your finger on.

Yesterday, however, we got a view as clear as day about how Facebook, the company, can misuse data. Facebook and fair housing advocates, including the Fair Housing Justice Center in New York and the Department of Justice for the Southern District of New York, reached a legal settlement to stop practices that support housing discrimination.

Say what?

The lawsuit had charged that Facebook’s advertising platform enabled landlords, lenders and housing providers to exclude various populations from seeing housing ads based on race, national origin, gender, family status, disability and other characteristics. What Facebook had been doing was to provide pre-populated lists of people who matched a housing advertiser’s desire to match particular populations.

Those who did the work to discover this trend are fair housing investigators who do systemic testing of housing, often by sending test subjects to try to rent or buy homes. Failure to comply with federal fair housing rules and the New York City Human Rights Law can find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

The legal efforts followed a ProPublica investigation beginning in 2016 that found that Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans. While Facebook later said it would bar housing, employment and credit ads that discriminate based on “ethnic affinity,” it continued to allow other forms of discriminatory targeting, including gender and disability, civil rights groups alleged. Facebook has said the ads were standard for the online world.

Though Facebook denied the allegations, the agreement calls for a reworking of the Facebook platform. Facebook has now agreed to establish a separate advertising portal for housing, employment, and credit ads on Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger to prevent such audience targeting. Also, housing advertisers will not be allowed to target their advertisements based on zip code.

According to the Fair Housing Justice Center, Facebook must restructure its “Lookalike Audience” feature, which had allowed advertisers to target ads to Facebook users who were similar to an advertiser’s existing customers. Moving forward, Facebook will restructure and rename this tool so it does not consider user profile categories including age, gender, relationship status, religious or political views, school, interests, zip code or membership in any Facebook groups. The social media company also will provide a page on which housing advertisers agree to anti-discrimination laws.

Facebook has long allowed advertisers to target potential customers and employees based on their demographics and interests, as gleaned from the vast trove of data the platform collects. Now, the social media giant is stepping away from that approach, amid mounting evidence that its micro-targeting techniques were abused.

“We are fully taking all the steps we can to protect people from discrimination on our platform,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer, told The Washington Post.“We believe this settlement goes not just to [the letter of] the law but beyond the law in taking very, very strong action to make sure any discrimination doesn’t happen,” though she declined to comment on whether the practices were illegal.

Fair housing officials commented that digitally based advertisers have a special obligation to ensure that information is not used in a harmful way.

The settlement agreement includes monetary relief for the four fair housing organizations totaling $1,950,000 along with a $500,000 advertising credit to use for promoting fair housing on Facebook. This agreement also settled four other pending civil rights lawsuits against Facebook.

The FHJC exists to eliminate housing discrimination and to strengthen fair housing enforcement in the New York City region. Other national fair housing groups participating included the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), the Miami-based Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence (HOPE), and the Fair Housing Council of Greater San Antonio (FHCGSA).

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By Terry H. Schwadron

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