The Department of Housing and Urban Development on Thursday sued Facebook for engaging in housing discrimination by allowing advertisers to restrict who is able to see ads on the platform based on characteristics like race, religion and national origin.
In addition to targeting Facebook’s advertising practices, the housing department also claims in its lawsuit that the company uses its data-mining practices to determine which of its users are able to view housing-related ads. On both counts, the department said, Facebook was in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.
“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” Ben Carson, the housing secretary, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”
Facebook appeared to be taken aback by the housing agency’s move, noting that just this month it had removed the advertisers’ ability to target housing, credit and jobs ads by age, gender, ZIP code and other categories in ways that could be considered discriminatory. Federal law explicitly prohibits against advertising, including online, from discrimination in those categories.
The company also recently settled a lawsuit filed by the National Fair Housing Alliance, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights organizations over its advertising practices.
“We’re surprised by HUD’s decision, as we’ve been working with them to address their concerns and have taken significant steps to prevent” ad discrimination, Facebook said in a statement. The company added that its negotiations with the housing agency over the issue had broken down because the agency wanted access to too much user information “without adequate safeguards.”