Cuomo Wants NY To Probe Facebook Housing Advertisers

Law360 - Sarah Jarvis

New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday announced plans for the state’s Department of Financial Services to investigate advertisers that allegedly prevent certain protected groups from seeing their housing ads on Facebook.

The state will investigate claims that state-regulated businesses use tools on the website’s advertising platform to block people from seeing ads based on classifications including race, age and gender, according to a press release. The DFS regulates state-chartered banks, mortgage bankers, insurance providers, bank trust companies and credit unions, among others.

Calling the allegations extremely troubling, Cuomo said the investigation will target discrimination in housing advertisements, specifically.

"We will take aggressive action and ensure that those who are behind these reprehensible alleged practices are held fully accountable," Cuomo said in the press release.

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Facebook agreed to overhaul its advertising platform after settling in March a series of lawsuits alleging that the company enabled advertisers to illegally exclude groups of users from seeing job, housing and credit ads based on factors including categories protected under various anti-discrimination laws. That same month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development leveled an administrative charge of discrimination against the social media giant.

Facebook released an audit Sunday saying by Sept. 30 all housing, employment and credit ads will be redirected to a more limited system that will not offer options to target ads by protected categories.

Facebook's civil rights audit said the company has engaged with "academics, researchers, civil rights and privacy advocates and civil society experts" to study social media algorithms and the potential for unintended bias.

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Peter Romer-Friedman of Outten & Golden LLP, who represented plaintiffs in various successful ad discrimination suits against Facebook, said he welcomes New York state regulators playing a role in influencing law and encouraging good corporate behavior.

"Often the government can get into areas and see documents that are harder for private plaintiffs and lawyers to get into," Romer-Friedman said. "So when governments get involved, I think corporations tend to take notice of that in a slightly different way."

He said ad discrimination is "very much a live issue" and that he is part of dozens of cases before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission challenging employers for discrimination in their ads. Even if some companies have stopped discriminating in their Facebook ads, it is still important to make sure the law is well-developed in that area, he said.

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