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

Summer arrives at Big White Ski Resort

Hiking, bike trails, restaurants and more are open as of July 10

COVID-19 cases identified in Kelowna, after public gatherings

Those who were downtown or at the waterfront from June 25 to July 6 maybe have been exposed to COVID-19.

Pianos return to Kelowna parks

The Pianos in Parks program was postponed amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Certain crimes increased in Peachland during pandemic

Theft from vehicles, vehicle incidents, and break and enters have increased during the pandemic

UPDATE: YouTubers claim to be Kelowna display toilet ‘poopers’

RCMP can not speak to legitimacy of video, will be investigating

B.C. sees 25 new COVID-19 cases, community exposure tracked

One death, outbreaks remain in two long-term care facilities

COVID-19: Homeless to be relocated from temporary Okanagan shelter

Homeless shelters in Vernon have been combined into one site at the curling rink since April

Dozens of fish die at popular lake near Chase

A few natural phenomena are possible causes for their deaths.

BREAKING: Amber Alert for two Quebec girls cancelled after bodies found

Romy Carpentier, 6, Norah Carpentier, 11, and their father, Martin Carpentier, missing since Wednesday

B.C. man prepares to be first to receive double-hand transplant in Canada

After the surgery, transplant patients face a long recovery

Grocers appear before MPs to explain decision to cut pandemic pay

Executives from three of Canada’s largest grocery chains have defended their decision to end temporary wage increases

Bringing support to Indigenous students and communities, while fulfilling a dream

Mitacs is a nonprofit organization that operates research and training programs

RCMP ‘disappointed’ by talk that race a factor in quiet Rideau Hall arrest

Corey Hurren, who is from Manitoba, is facing 22 charges

NHL’s Canadian hubs offer little economic benefit, but morale boost is valuable: experts

Games are slated to start Aug. 1 with six Canadian teams qualifying for the 24-team resumption of play

Most Read