In this April 18, 2017, file photo, conference workers speak in front of a demo booth at Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference, in San Jose, Calif. Facebook and Instagram say it will charge goods and services taxes on online advertisements purchased through its Canadian operations. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Noah Berger, File

Facebook charged with housing discrimination by U.S. government

The charges could cost the social network millions of dollars in penalties

The federal government charged Facebookwith high-tech housing discrimination Thursday for allegedly allowing landlords and real estate brokers to systematically exclude groups such as non-Christians, immigrants and minorities from seeing ads for houses and apartments.

The civil charges filed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development could cost the social network millions of dollars in penalties. But more than that, they strike at the heart of Facebook’s business model — its vaunted ability to deliver ads with surgical precision to certain groups of people and not others.

“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”

READ MORE: Facebook extends ban on hate speech to ‘white nationalists’

In a statement, Facebook expressed surprise over the charges, saying it has been working with HUD to address its concerns and has taken steps to prevent discrimination, including eliminating thousands of ad-targeting options last year that could be misused by advertisers.

Just last week, Facebook agreed to overhaul its targeting system and abandon some of the practices singled out by HUD to prevent discrimination, not just in housing listings but in credit and employment ads as well. The move was part of a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union and other activists.

“We’re disappointed by today’s developments, but we’ll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues,” the company said.

The HUD charges were seen as a possible prelude to a wider regulatory crackdown on the digital advertising industry, which is dominated by Facebook and Google. And the case was yet another blow to Facebook, which has come under siege from lawmakers, regulators and activists and is under investigation in the U.S. and Europe over its data and privacy practices.

The technology at the centre of the clash with HUD has helped make Facebook rich, with annual revenue of close to $56 billion. Facebook gathers enormous amounts of data on what users read and like and who their friends are, and it uses that information to help advertisers and others direct their messages to exactly the crowd they want to reach.

HUD said Facebook is allowing advertisers to practice a sort of high-tech form of red-lining by excluding people in entire neighbourhoods or ZIP codes from seeing their ads. The company was accused, too, of giving advertisers the option of showing ads only to men or only to women.

Facebook also allegedly allowed advertisers to exclude parents those who are non-American-born non-Christians and those interested in Hispanic culture, “deaf culture,” accessibility for the disabled, countries like Honduras or Somalia, or a variety of other topics.

The case will be heard by an administration law judge unless HUD or Facebook decides to move it to federal court.

“The nature of their business model is advertising and targeted advertising, so that is a slippery slope. That is their business model,” said Dan Ives, an industry analyst with Wedbush Securities. “The government launched this missile and caught many in the industry by surprise.”

Ives said the move may mean U.S. regulators are taking broader aim at the digital advertising market. “This is a clear shot across the bow for Facebook and others,” he said.

Galen Sherwin of the ACLU likewise warned: “All the online platforms should be paying close attention to these lawsuits and taking a hard look at their own advertising platforms.” Though Sherwin didn’t name names, Google has ad-targeting options similar to Facebook’s.

Facebook is already under fire for allowing fake Russian accounts to buy ads targeting U.S. users and sow political discord during the 2016 presidential election. The company has also been criticized for allowing organizations to target groups of people identified as “Jew-haters” and Nazi sympathizers.

HUD brought an initial complaint against Facebook in August. Facebook said in its statement that it was “eager to find a solution” but that HUD “insisted on access to sensitive information — like user data — without adequate safeguards.”

READ MORE: Facebook launches AI to find and remove ‘revenge porn’

In its settlement with the ACLU and others, Facebook said it will no longer allow housing, employment or credit ads that target people by age, gender or ZIP code. It said it will also limit other targeting options so that these ads don’t exclude people on the basis of race, ethnicity and other legally protected categories, including sexual orientation.

“Unless and until HUD can verify that there is an end of the discriminatory practices, we still have a responsibility to the American people,” said Raffi Williams, deputy assistant HUD secretary.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Stop checks, searches of Wet’suwet’en pipeline opposers unlawful: Watchdog

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs file complaint

Wet’suwet’en pipeline supporters speak up

“Protesters get one side of the story and they stand up with their fists in the air.”

Bachrach rejects calls for police action against demonstrators

Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP says only way out of crisis is “true nation-to-nation” talks

Coast Mountain College appoints a new president

The promotion came from within the school

Coastal GasLink pipeline investor committed to closing deal despite protests

Developer TC Energy Corp. — formerly TransCanada Corp. — is to remain the operator of the $6.6-billion pipeline

Blair says RCMP have met Wet’suwet’en conditions, calls for end to blockades

The Wet’suwet’en’s hereditary chiefs oppose the Coastal GasLink project

Petition seeks to remove local police department from Lindsay Buziak murder case

American woman starts online petition in hopes of helping Buziak family

Health officials confirm sixth COVID-19 case in B.C.

Woman remains in isolation as Fraser Health officials investigate

Study says flu vaccine protected most people during unusual influenza season

Test-negative method was pioneered by the BC Centre for Disease Control in 2004

Saskatchewan and B.C. reach championship round at Scotties

British Columbia’s Corryn Brown locked up the last berth in Pool B

B.C. lawyer, professor look to piloting a mental-health court

In November, Nova Scotia’s mental-health court program marked 10 years of existence

COLUMN: Not an expert on First Nations government structures? Then maybe you should calm down

Consider your knowledge about First Nations governance structures before getting really, really mad

One dead in multi-vehicle collision involving logging truck on northern B.C. highway

DriveBC says highway expected to remain closed until 8 p.m.

B.C. teacher gets 15-year ban after lying about having sex with just-graduated student

Teacher had been dishonest with the B.C. Commissioner for Teacher Regulation

Most Read