Facebook is being sued by a group of fair housing organizations that say it’s allowed landlords and real estate brokers to discriminate against people based on their gender and family status on its advertising platform.
The National Fair Housing Alliance and three other housing groups say that advertisers have been allowed to tap people’s personal data on Facebook and use that information to exclude certain demographics from viewing their ads.
The lawsuit alleges that Facebook’s advertising platform violates the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination “based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin” on home sale and rental advertisements.
The housing groups said they created a fake profile for a real estate firm in order to test their theories, then submitted dozens of housing ads to Facebook that excluded users based on their gender, family status, and whether they were interested in “disabled parking permits.”
“Facebook enables a real estate company or landlord to discriminate by selectively targeting housing advertisements to exclude specific populations,” said Fred Freiberg, executive director of the New York-based Fair Housing Justice Center, which is also part of the lawsuit, in a statement. “Facebook’s platform is the virtual equivalent of posting a ‘For Rent’ sign that says ‘no families with young kids’ or ‘no women,’ but it does so in an insidious and stealthy manner so that people have no clue they have been excluded on the basis of family status or sex.”
Naturally Facebook has denied the accusations against it, telling CNN that there is “no place for discrimination on Facebook.”
“We believe this lawsuit is without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously. … We take prompt enforcement action when we determine that ads violate our policies,” a spokesperson for the social media firm said.
However, the National Fair Housing Alliance hit back, saying that Facebook has been warned “repeatedly” about its advertising practices over the years. It cites the example of a customization option called “Ethnic Affinities” that has previously been criticized because it allowed advertisers to target or exclude specific groups for ads that appear on Facebook.
“Facebook has known for years that its advertising platform violates civil rights laws, but it has refused to change its ways on a voluntary basis,” Diane L. Houk, one of the attorneys representing the housing groups, said in a statement. “Facebook is not above the law and must answer these civil rights claims in court.”