HUD Sues Facebook Over Housing Discrimination and Says the Company’s Algorithms Have Made the Problem Worse

ProPublica — Ariana Tobin

The charge comes a week after Facebook made major changes to its advertising platform, and two years after our reporting raised the issue.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Thursday it is suing Facebook for violating the Fair Housing Act by allowing advertisers to limit housing ads based on race, gender and other characteristics.

The agency also said Facebook’s ad system discriminates against users even when advertisers did not choose to do so.

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“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.”

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HUD’s suit comes a week after Facebook announced sweeping changes to its advertising portal, preventing landlords, employers and lenders from discriminating in housing, employment or credit ads.

Facebook also disputed HUD’s conclusion that the system itself discriminates beyond advertisers’ choices: “HUD had no evidence and finding that our AI systems discriminate against people.”

A Facebook spokesperson told ProPublica that the company declined to give HUD data about who is actually seeing ads because of privacy concerns.

Asked about that, HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said, “We are bound, and Facebook itself is bound, not to disclose sensitive negotiations, and so there’s very little we can say to that point.”

Peter Romer-Friedman, an employment attorney involved in multiple lawsuits that Facebook settled last week, said HUD’s suit — and the contention that Facebook’s algorithm is amplifying discrimination — may have implications for other cases related to employment and Facebook ads. “The point that the HUD complaint makes about bias in the delivery algorithm is the same exact point that we’ve been making for nearly a year” in another case involving alleged age discrimination on Facebook, Romer-Friedman said.

Thursday’s charge comes after a year of litigation from housing groups. In March 2018, the National Fair Housing Alliance sued Facebook, alleging it allowed advertisers to discriminate against legally protected groups, including mothers, the disabled and Spanish speakers. A few months later, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the case. Soon after, HUD filed a formal complaint, signaling that it had found enough evidence during its initial investigation to raise the possibility of further legal action.

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