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HUD sues Facebook for discrimination in housing ads

The tech company settled similar cases with the ACLU just last week

HUD headquarters in D.C. Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed charges against social media giant Facebook on Thursday, alleging that its advertising platform violates the Fair Housing Act by allowing lenders and realtors to target Facebook users on the basis of race, gender, religion, familial status, disability, and national origin.

“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson in a statement. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”

According to Axios, HUD and Facebook were close to a settlement. Citing anonymous sources, the Axios report says the decision to file charges could be motivated by a desire to appear on the offensive on housing discrimination prior to Carson’s meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill next week.

The charges are somewhat surprising as Facebook just settled five similar cases with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last week. Under the settlement, the company agreed to create a separate advertising portal for real estate listings where advertisers’ options for targeting are limited. Facebook also settled a housing discrimination case with the state of Washington last summer.

“Our job is to make sure [the benefits of Facebook’s advertising platform] continue while also making sure that our ads tools aren’t misused,” said Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in statement about the ACLU settlement. “There is a long history of discrimination in the areas of housing, employment and credit, and this harmful behavior should not happen through Facebook ads.”

Facebook has been under fire in Washington, D.C., since the 2016 election. Republicans have long accused the company of bias in its newsfeed, while Democrats more recently blasted Facebook for running Russian-linked ads that aimed to divide Americans during and after the election. On Wednesday, Facebook announced it would ban white nationalist and white separatist content from its platform.

Aside from satisfying the conditions of its legal settlement, Facebook’s plan to create a separate advertising portal for real estate ads could become a shaker-upper in the real estate industry. The portal would put Facebook in direct competition with major real estate tech companies companies like Zillow and Redfin.