Facebook allows landlords to discriminate on housing ads, HUD charges

Facebook is under fire for housing ads that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says are discriminatory.

HUD said Friday that it had filed a formal complaint accusing the beleaguered tech giant of violating the Fair Housing Act because the company allows landlords and sellers to engage in housing discrimination.

The social network permits advertisers to decide who gets to see their housing-related ads based on users’ race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, disability and zip code, according to a statement from HUD. This allows advertisers to limit housing options for certain groups of people, which is discriminatory.

The issue of discriminatory housing ads is not new for Facebook.

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An investigation by ProPublica in 2016 showed that people could target housing ads toward certain races and ethnicities and away from others. At the time, Facebook said it would fix the problem.

One year later, ProPublica found Facebook was engaging in the same problematic practices by allowing the targeted ads to get through their system.

All of the excluded groups are protected under the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin and other classes.

"There is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it's strictly prohibited in our policies. Over the past year we've strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse," Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, told CNET via an email. "We're aware of the statement of interest filed and will respond in court; and we'll continue working directly with HUD to address their concerns."

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According to HUD, Facebook also promotes its targeted advertising platform with “success stories” for finding “the perfect homeowners” and “attracting renters.”

HUD said the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York filed a statement of interest, joined in by HUD, in U.S. District Court on behalf of private litigants challenging Facebook’s advertising platform.

Facebook has also been hit by civil rights groups for its new, more stringent policies around identity verification for anyone placing political advertisements on the site. The groups claim those practices are discriminatory against Latinos and others.