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HUD charges Facebook with housing discrimination

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)  is charging Facebook with violating the Fair Housing Act by encouraging, enabling, and causing housing discrimination through the company’s advertising platform.

The agency of Thursday filed a complaint alleging Facebook was “unlawfully discriminating” based on race, colour, national origin and other criteria by “restricting who can view housing-related ads” on its platforms and across the internet, in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

HUD in a statement said the social network “mines extensive data about its users” and uses that to determine which of its users view housing-related ads “based, in part, on these protected characteristics”.

According to HUD’s Charge, Facebook enabled advertisers to exclude people whom Facebook classified as parents; non-American-born; non-Christian; interested in accessibility; interested in Hispanic culture; or a wide variety of other interests that closely align with the Fair Housing Act’s protected classes.

HUD is also charging that Facebook enabled advertisers to exclude people based upon their neighborhood by drawing a red line around those neighborhoods on a map. Facebook also allegedly gave advertisers the option of showing ads only to men or only to women.

The Charge further asserts that Facebook also uses the protected characteristics of people to determine who will view ads regardless of whether an advertiser wants to reach a broad or narrow audience.

HUD claims Facebook combines data it collects about user attributes and behaviour with data it obtains about user behaviour on other websites and in the non-digital world. Facebook then allegedly uses machine learning and other prediction techniques to classify and group users to project each user’s likely response to a given ad, and in doing so, may recreate groupings defined by their protected class.

The Charge concludes that by grouping users who have similar attributes and behaviours (unrelated to housing) and presuming a shared interest or disinterest in housing-related advertisements, Facebook’s mechanisms function just like an advertiser who intentionally targets or excludes users based on their protected class.

Through its Charge, HUD seeks to address unresolved fair housing issues regarding Facebook’s advertising practices and to obtain appropriate relief for the harm Facebook caused and continues to cause.

“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” Ben Carson, HUD secretary, 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.”

HUD’s Charge will be heard by a United States Administrative Law Judge unless any party to the Charge elects to have the case heard in federal district court. If an administrative law judge finds after a hearing that discrimination has occurred, he may award damages for harm caused by the discrimination.

The judge may also order injunctive relief and other equitable relief, as well as payment of attorney fees. In addition, the judge may impose fines to vindicate the public interest. If the matter is decided in federal court, the judge may also award punitive damages.

HUD’s Charge against Facebook

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