Facebook Sued for Discrimination in Online Housing Ads

The National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) and three of its member organizations recently filed a lawsuit against Facebook, Inc., alleging that the social media’s advertising platform violated fair housing law by enabling landlords and real estate brokers to exclude families with children, women, and other protected classes of people from receiving housing ads.

The civil rights groups allege that Facebook’s practices violate federal and local fair housing laws that bar discrimination in housing advertising. With nearly 2 billion users, Facebook customizes the audience for its millions of advertisers based on its vast trove of personalized user data, according to the NFHA. The lawsuit alleges that Facebook has created pre-populated lists that make it possible for its housing advertisers to “exclude” (in Facebook terminology) home seekers from viewing or receiving rental or sales ads because of protected characteristics, including family status and sex.

According to the NFHA, the civil rights groups conducted investigations by creating a non-existent realty firm and then submitted dozens of housing advertisements to Facebook for review. In response, the complaint alleged, Facebook provided specific lists of groups that could be excluded 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 complaint also alleged that Facebook provides housing advertisers with the ability to exclude certain “interest” categories that are disability-based (such as people who are interested in disabled veterans or disabled parking permits) or national origin-based (such as people who are interested in English as a second language).

The NFHA pointed to a 2016 investigation by the news organization ProPublica, which allegedly 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. In its complaint, the NFHA claimed that Facebook has recently removed some of these options, but it continues to violate fair housing laws that prohibit discrimination in other ways.

“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,” Lisa Rice, NFHA’s President and CEO, said in a statement. “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. Facebook’s platform that excludes these consumers from ever seeing certain ads to rent or buy housing must be changed immediately. Facebook ought to be opening doors to housing opportunities instead of closing them,” she said.