"Digital redlining": Facebook's housing ads seem designed to discriminate

Despite promises to change, a new lawsuit claims housing discrimination is still rampant on the social media giant

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published August 21, 2019 7:00PM (EDT)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Getty/Justin Sullivan)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Getty/Justin Sullivan)

Though housing functions like a commodity rather than a right in the United States, it is, lest we forget, a necessity for survival. As such, the federal government has strong protections to prevent discrimination in housing that date to the Fair Housing Act, which was borne of the Civil Rights Movement.

But in our perennially online epoch, many if not most renters find housing and roommates online. That can create a host of problems when housing searches meet social media platforms like Facebook — which is, by design, a tool to quantify an individual's traits and identity into data points that can easily be used to foment discrimination.

Facebook's Marketplace, a Craigslist ripoff that the social media giant created to keep classifieds within its online ecosystem, has been under scrutiny for years for this very reason. Now, despite Facebook's recent promise to make changes to prevent discrimination from happening in its housing ads, a new lawsuit claims these were empty promises.

The lawsuit was filed on Aug. 16 by a group of Facebook users in San Francisco's federal court, and alleged that the social media platform allows housing providers to filter their ads from people based on family status, disability, and national origin. The plaintiffs allege that such filtering limited their abilities to find housing — which is a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act. In essence, according to the lawsuit, it is a form of redlining.

"Facebook has created, implemented and/or maintained a pre-populated list of demographics, behaviors and interests that makes it possible for real estate brokers and landlords to exclude certain buyers or renters from ever seeing their ads," the lawsuit states. "This action is called "redlining" and Facebook's practice of redlining is illegal and prohibited under the FHA (Fair Housing Act)."

According to the San Jose Mercury News, on Monday, August 19, Facebook said real estate advertisers who want to run housing ads can no longer filter which users see those ads based on specific demographic information like age, gender and race.

"Discrimination has no place on our platform and we've already made major changes to the way housing ads are run on Facebook," a spokeswoman told the newspaper in an emailed statement.

But the lawyers who filed the suit said that is not necessarily the case.

"It's the same old platform," attorney David Honigman, one of several attorneys representing the plaintiffs, told the Mercury News. "Anybody can still discriminate at the moment."

The plaintiffs gave as an example the use of discrimination filters to shield "new parents," "African Americans," and "Hispanics" from seeing a housing ad. They were able to use these filters on August 16, when the lawsuit was filed.

"Facebook, through its creation, development, implementation, promotion and marketing of its Multicultural Affinity, Exclude People, or Include People tools, permits its advertisers to select illegal preferences for its ads to Facebook users," the lawsuit states. The aforementioned tools are all parameters that advertisers can use on the site to pick the demographic(s) to which they wish to advertise.

Gerard Mantese, another attorney representing the plaintiffs, said one of his clients — an unnamed disabled, Latina, single mother — did not have specific real estate listings available to her.

"Facebook allowed the placement of housing ads that excluded women, those with disabilities, and those of certain national origins, so that renters and homeowners in protected classes never even saw certain ads," he told KCBS radio.

To those who follow Facebook's civil rights issues, this may sound familiar. In 2016, ProPublica found Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans, and other categories that were protected by federal law. Various housing organizations, including the National Fair Housing Alliance, sued Facebook last year — a lawsuit which Facebook settled in March 2019.

Despite these actions and changes, the social networking platform has yet to find a remedy to compensate Facebook users who have been affected by the filters, Honigman explained. While the lawsuit has been filed on behalf of several New York-based plaintiffs, the intent is that it will set a precedent and represent all Facebook users who claim they faced discrimination on the platform.

Facebook's tools have be used to skirt civil rights law in other ways, too. A 2017 investigation led by ProPublica and the New York Times found that companies like Verizon, Amazon, Goldman Sachs, Target, and Facebook had reportedly targeted specific job ads to limited age groups, according to the report. Such targeting appears to violate the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

Following that investigation, Facebook defended its practice of limiting job ads to specific ages.

"US law forbids discrimination in employment based on age, race, gender and other legally protected characteristics. That said, simply showing certain job ads to different age groups on services like Facebook or Google may not in itself be discriminatory — just as it can be OK to run employment ads in magazines and on TV shows targeted at younger or older people," Rob Goldman, Facebook's VP of Ads, said in a statement.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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