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HUD Charges Facebook With Discrimination Over Online Ad Targeting Policies


The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is taking on one of the world's tech giants in a surprising turn.

On Thursday, HUD filed charges against Facebook for housing discrimination, saying that the data it provides advertisers for targeting consumers allows the exclusion of certain groups from equal opportunity, the Washington Post reports. Facebook had already settled a lawsuit with the ACLU and other civil rights groups over the same issue two weeks prior.

“We’re surprised by HUD’s decision, as we’ve been working with them to address their concerns and have taken significant steps to prevent ads discrimination,” Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said in a statement to the Post. 

As part of its settlement with the ACLU group, Facebook promised to create a new portal for housing, credit and job advertisements that would exclude a list of demographic identifiers such as age, gender and ZIP code, the Post reports. Grouped together, such information can give advertisers a sense for a Facebook user's race, and use that to avoid marketing housing opportunities to protected groups.

Not satisfied with that promise, HUD requested unfettered access to Facebook's trove of user data, Osborne said to the Post, which the social network traditionally refuses to do for governments and law enforcement.

Its refusal in this case is what triggered HUD to file charges, claiming that it was continuing to gather and disseminate data, including from other websites and offline, that could be combined to create a detailed enough picture of a user for discrimination.

HUD's treatment of Facebook stands out since President Donald Trump was elected and Ben Carson was installed as secretary. One of Carson's first acts was to suspend all outstanding discrimination investigations, and Facebook's is the only one his department has reopened.

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

HUD has also been in discussion with Google and Twitter over similar concerns, but has not threatened charges in those cases. With Facebook, HUD alleged that the discrimination has reached such a level that it draws maps with red lines surrounding certain neighborhoods for advertisers, drawing direct parallels with the lending practice of "redlining" that the Fair Housing Act banned in 1968.