Facebook is being charged with violating fair housing laws because of the demographic data it provides to advertisers, the federal government announced Thursday.
The social media giant has long been the subject of complaints by fair housing advocates. Last week, it reached a court settlement and agreed to hide certain demographic data from landlords and creditors.
The action by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) suggests the court settlement wasn’t enough. HUD announced it was charging Facebook with violating the Fair Housing Act by “encouraging, enabling and causing housing discrimination” with its advertising platform.
“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live. Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face,” tweeted HUD Secretary Ben Carson.
Facebook said it was 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,” the company said in a statement.
“We’re disappointed by today’s developments, but we’ll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues,” the company said.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 — also known as The Civil Rights Act of 1968 — states that its illegal “to make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.”
In 2016, ProPublica found that Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude anyone with an “affinity” for African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic content. The company has said it removed that option for landlords, employers and creditors about a year ago.
Last week, Facebook announced it would block landlords and creditors from using a person’s demographic data including a person’s zip code, gender and age, to target certain groups in online advertisements.
The announcement is part of a legal settlement with groups that promote fair housing laws.
Facebook said in a blog post last week by Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, that it already prohibited certain categories from being used in advertising such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion.
“Our policies already prohibit advertisers from using our tools to discriminate,” Sandberg wrote. “We’ve removed thousands of categories from targeting related to protected classes such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion. But we can do better.”