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One of the great features of Facebook, for advertisers, is the ability to target people based on their location and interests. Where Facebook gets into trouble, however, is when it lets certain advertisers restrict access to ads based on gender or race.
The social network has already been sued for allowing employers to exclude women and non-binary users from receiving certain job postings and accused of allowing advertisers to exclude specific groups from seeing advertisements based on "Ethnic Affinities."
Now, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is suing Facebook for violating the Fair Housing Act by "encouraging, enabling and causing housing discrimination" in allowing companies to decide who can see certain housing ads.
Slamming the Door
"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."
Under the Fair Housing Act, it's illegal to "make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin, or an intention to make any such preference, limitation, or discrimination."
"Because of the way [Facebook] designed its advertising platform," HUD claims, "ads for housing and housing-related services are shown to large audiences that are severely biased based on characteristics protected by the Act, such as audiences of tens of thousands of users that are nearly all men or nearly all women."
According to the official charging document, Facebook allowed housing advertisers to limit their audience to users classified as "Christian" or "Childfree," while blocking those whose attributes included "women in the workforce," "moms of grade school kids," "foreigners," "Puerto Rico Islanders," or people interested in "parenting," "accessibility," "service animal," "Hijab Fashion," or "Hispanic Culture."
Opening a Window?
The charges caught the social media giant off guard, according to Facebook representative Joe Osborne. "We're surprised by HUD's decision, as we've been working with them to address their concerns and have taken significant steps to prevent ads discrimination," Osborne told the Washington Post. "We're disappointed by today's developments, but we'll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues."
If you think you've been discriminated against when it comes to housing, based on your sex, race, or gender identity, contact an experienced civil rights attorney for help.