Facebook Sued for Allegedly Allowing Discriminatory Housing Ads (UPDATED)

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The current controversy troubling Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB) regarding its relationship with Cambridge Analytica and a leak of up to 50 million users personal information is not the only headache for the social media giant. Tuesday morning the National Fair Housing Alliance (NHFA) and three of its member organizations filed a lawsuit charging that Facebook’s advertising platform enables landlords and real estate brokers to exclude some classes of people from receiving housing ads.

A 2016 investigation by news organization ProPublica, cited in the lawsuit, found that Facebook’s ad platform permitted advertisers for a variety of goods and services, including housing, to exclude African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans from receiving ads. While Facebook recently removed some of these options, the complaint alleges that the company continues to violate fair housing laws that prohibit discrimination in other ways.

In November 2017, the NHFA created a nonexistent realty firm and then prepared dozens of housing advertisements that were submitted to Facebook for review. Facebook provided NHFA and its co-plaintiffs with specific lists of groups they could exclude from receiving the ads, including families with children, moms with children of certain ages, women or men, and other categories based on sex or family status. The plaintiffs also had the ability to exclude withhold ads from people in categories such as disabled veterans or national origin.

Lisa Rice, president and CEO of NHFA, said:

Amid growing public concern in the past weeks that Facebook has mishandled users’ data, our investigation shows that Facebook also allows and even encourages its paid advertisers to discriminate using its vast trove of personal data. Facebook’s use and abuse of user data for discriminatory purposes needs to stop. It is already a challenge for women, families with children, people with disabilities and other under-served groups to find housing.

In today’s complaint filed by the law firm of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, the plaintiffs are asking the court to:

  1. Declare that the practice of excluding Facebook users from receiving housing ads on the basis of sex, family status, and any other legally protected categories violates the Fair Housing Act and the New York City Human Rights Law;
  2. Issue an injunction barring Facebook from continuing to engage in discriminatory housing advertising; and
  3. Require Facebook to change its advertising platform and its practices to comply with fair housing laws, including by eliminating checkboxes, selection categories, and other content that enable advertisers to restrict access to housing advertisements.

The full complaint is available at the NHFA website.

UPDATE: After this story was published, we received the following comment from a Facebook spokesperson:

There is absolutely no place for discrimination on Facebook. We believe this lawsuit is without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously.

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