Facebook is once again in hot water for its ad system. This time the platform appears to have allowed housing advertisers to discriminate (again). The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has now filed a complaint against the social media company for allowing what it says are discriminatory ads. The complaint brings government involvement to ongoing scrutiny over ad targeting options on the network.
Housing ads fall under stricter regulations — under U.S. law, ads for housing cannot discriminate based on factors like race, sex, religion, and disability among others. The complaint says that Facebook’s advertising tool allows advertisers to restrict who sees the ad “based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability.” The complaint goes on to claim that Facebook’s ad tools will even suggest discriminatory ad targeting options.
While the HUD charges are new, the claims are not. Non-profit investigative group ProPublica first suggested Facebook wasn’t following the rules for housing ads in 2016, which was followed by a lawsuit. Facebook made some changes, but the organization published another report a year later that suggested the social network hadn’t done enough.
According to the latest complaints, Facebook’s ad tool still allows housing ads to target specific genders. The ability to target ads to a user’s interests also creates a sticking point for housing ads, since the complaint found that interest categories like “assistance dog, mobility scooter, accessibility or deaf culture” could still be included in the ads.
Facebook’s targeted advertising is both largely responsible for the company’s financial success as well as complaints about privacy on the network. The ad tools are designed to allow businesses to deliver the ad only to those that are likely to make a purchase. For example, an ad for wedding photography can be targeted only to Facebook users that list engaged as their relationship status. Besides creating more effective ads for businesses, the tools help Facebook users see more relevant ads.
Finding where to draw the line within that ad platform is proving troublesome for the network, however. While marketing something like makeup or tampons to women makes sense, marketing a housing ad only to one gender is against the law. The automation behind the ad system can also be difficult to catch such discrimination on — as became evident when Facebook apologized when it realized that allowing users to fill in anything under interests on their profiles allowed ads to be targeted to “jew haters.”
Facebook says discrimination has no place on the network and the company has been strengthening its policies. “There is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it’s strictly prohibited in our policies,” a Facebook spokesperson told Axios. “Over the past year, we’ve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse. We’re aware of the statement of interest filed and will respond in court, and we’ll continue working directly with HUD to address their concerns.”