Ben Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development has launched an investigation of Facebook, claiming that the social media giant has engaged in discrimination in its housing advertisement practices, numerous outlets have reported.
The company had previously been under investigation for its fair-housing practices but the probe had been frozen for five months, Gizmodo reported.
The surprise announcement was made by Jereon Brown, HUD’s general deputy secretary for public affairs, during congressional testimony Wednesday.
“Secretary Carson has directed HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity to re-open its investigation into Facebook’s advertising practices,” Brown told lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“Since our initial investigation, we have learned more about these practices that warrant a deeper level of scrutiny. At this point, we are resuming an investigation and have made no findings in this matter.”
The issue at hand again deals with the information Facebook keeps on its users. As early as 2016, ProPublica reported that the social media giant allowed housing advertisers to exclude users based on a category known as “Ethnic Affinities” — ostensibly excluding potential tenants based on race.
“Facebook provided realtors, for example, with ad-targeting options that allowing them to “narrow” their ads to excluded, among others, black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans,” Gizmodo reported.
“The ad-targeting mechanism may have also allowed realtors — or homeowners looking to rent out or sell their own properties — to exclude people with disabilities as well.”
For those of you not versed in anti-discrimination law (or reality), this is very, very illegal; the 1968 Fair Housing Act forbids landlords to take color, ethnicity, disability status, gender, national origin or familial status into account when renting a property.
Facebook says that it tried to install safeguards to prevent this from happening in the future, but that “glitches” had allowed the practice to continue.
While HUD has frozen some fair-housing investigations since the Trump administration came to power, Facebook now finds itself the subject of an active probe again. And that’s just the beginning of its problems.
According to The Washington Post, the move came on the same day that the Department of Justice “took the side of several fair-housing groups in opposing Facebook’s efforts to have a discrimination lawsuit dismissed, arguing that Facebook can be held liable when its ad-targeting tools allow advertisers to unfairly deprive some categories of people of housing offers.”
“Taken together, the moves mark an escalation of federal scrutiny of how Facebook’s tools may create illegal forms of discrimination, allegations that also are central to separate lawsuits regarding the access to credit and employment opportunities, which, like housing, are subject to federal legal protection,” The Post noted.
“The federal action also suggests limits on the reach of a key federal law, the Communications Decency Act, that long has been interpreted as offering technology companies broad immunity against many types of legal claims related to online content.”
Facebook hasn’t had a particularly great few months from both the right or the left, although for decidedly different issues. However, while you might be hard pressed to get the left to care too much about restricting the reach of conservative news or the right to get worked up about the infinitesimal number of alleged Russian advertisements that Hillary partisans seem convinced swung the election to Donald Trump, you can probably get both sides to care about blatant housing discrimination.
And, given the fact that Facebook doesn’t have too many friends on Capitol Hill right now, this could be the beginning of a world of pain for the folks at Menlo Park.