The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Thursday morning that it is charging Facebook for violating the Fair Housing Act. The department alleges that Facebook restricted who could view housing-related advertisements on the platform and across the internet on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex — all of which fall under a protected class.
The charges detail exactly how Facebook went about this, stating that the company provided advertisers with tools “to define which users, or which types of users, the advertiser would like to see an ad.” Such tools included a toggle button that could exclude users by gender, a search-box, drop-down menus, and even a map tool with which advertisers were able to draw an actual red line around the neighborhoods of users they didn’t want seeing their ads.
ProPublica first reported on Facebook’s discriminatory housing ads back in 2016; in its investigation the publication ran ads excluding users on the basis of race and then tracked all the ways Facebook failed to address that. ProPublica’s continued reporting on the issue has showed exactly how slow the company has been to make substantive moves in tackling the issue.
Facebook stands in stark contrast to other venues for housing-related ads. The New York Times, for example, has a partly automated system that blocks discriminatory posts and includes the option for human review if an ad falls into a grey area.
Earlier this week, Facebook settled with civil-rights groups that similarly alleged that the company enabled advertisers to exclude users based on protected classes like race and sex from seeing their ads. Facebook agreed to reforms to curb this exact practice of discriminatory ad targeting, but those actions appear to have come too late. This is the latest of many transgressions for which Facebook is finally being held to account, after it jeopardized the security of users’ data, disseminated misinformation, and allowed a terrorist attack to be live-streamed on the platform.
Facebook is being credibly accused of continuing a dire legacy of Jim Crow-era discrimination. Its innovations have managed only to make redlining digital, demonstrating that our old societal issues don’t disappear with the arrival of new technology.