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The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) filed a complaint against Facebook on Friday (17 August), alleging the platform is selling ads that discriminate against users based on race, religion and sexuality.

This is a problem that Facebook has been struggling to deal with for at least 2 years and suggests a lack of seriousness on the part of Facebook’s product teams responsible. It also suggests that the solutions Facebook have tried to employ – a mixture of policy and algorithms – have failed to make a real impact.

Facebook’s discriminatory housing ads: a timeline

All the way back in November 2016, Erin Egan, Chief Privacy Officer at Facebook, published this post, saying:

“Recently, policymakers and civil rights leaders have expressed concerns that advertisers could misuse some aspects of our affinity marketing segments. Specifically, they’ve raised the possibility that some advertisers might use these segments to run ads that discriminate against people, particularly in areas where certain groups have historically faced discrimination — housing, employment and the extension of credit.”

Since then, the issue has failed to go away. In February 2017, Facebook had claimed to put in place a number of measures that would once and for all deal with the issue, updating its policies and offering new tools.

However, in November 2017, an investigation by ProPublica found that those measures that Facebook had claimed it was putting in place were having no impact whatsoever. The website purchased “dozens of rental housing ads on Facebook, but asked that they not be shown to certain categories of users.”

The HUD told ProPublica at the time that it was satisfied with the inquiry it had done with Facebook on discriminatory ads, but that now seems to have changed.

HUD’s case against Facebook

In a statement, Anna Maria Faras,  Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity explained that “the Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination including those who might limit or deny housing options with a click of a mouse…When Facebook uses the vast amount of personal data it collects to help advertisers to discriminate, it’s the same as slamming the door in someone’s face.”

Facebook did respond to the complaint, offering a comment to the Washington Post. “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; we’ll continue working directly with HUD to address their concerns.”

It’s clear that Facebook’s “systems” are struggling. There are certainly important questions to be answered about algorithmic problem solving, and it’s likely to be some time before we see the conclusion of this story. Perhaps it might just require a little more human intervention. 

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Co-editor of the Packt Hub. Interested in politics, tech culture, and how software and business are changing each other.


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