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Despite changes, HUD hits Facebook with charges of ad discrimination

A week after Facebook adjusted ad targeting options for housing and jobs ads, the social media giant is facing charges from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). On Thursday, March 28, HUD filed charges against Facebook for ad-targeting tools that allegedly break the Fair Housing Act regulations.

According to HUD, Facebook’s ad platform doesn’t deliver housing ads fairly, discriminating who sees those ads based on race, religion, family status, and disability. In the charging document, HUD claims that “ads for housing and housing-related services are shown to large audiences that are severely biased on characteristics protected by the Act, such as audiences of tens of thousands of users that are nearly all men or nearly all women.”

The charges come after a complaint also filed by HUD last summer claiming violations of the same regulations. Facebook’s ad platform, which is one of the company’s major sources of funding, allows businesses to deliver ads to users based on interests. The ad platform previously allowed housing advertisers to target an ad based on age, gender, and ZIP code, categories that the social media giant removed last week as part of a separate settlement with three organizations. The ad categories for race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion were previously removed from the housing and jobs categories.

In a statement, Facebook said the company is surprised by the charges after working with HUD to address the concerns stated in the charges. But, the company added that the network couldn’t give HUD all the information the organization requested because it contained user data. “While we were eager to find a solution, HUD insisted on access to sensitive information — like user data — without adequate safeguards. We’re disappointed by today’s developments, but we’ll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues,” Facebook said in a statement.

The charges name several of Facebook’s ad targeting tools, including a toggle to exclude men or women, a search tool that allows for excluding users who speak a specific language, and a map tool to narrow results by excluding locations. HUD also pointed out Facebook’s tool for choosing from a list of attributes to target ads, including options to exclude those same categories, which range from “accessibility” to “Hijab Fashion.” (Last week’s changes prevented housing ads from using Facebook’s targeting for user-added interests.)

Facebook also allows advertisers to upload information from current customers for ad targeting, as well as an option to deliver ads to the users already visiting the advertiser’s website or social media pages. Another tool called Lookalike Audiences allows advertisers to choose a list of qualities in current customers in order to find new customers with similar interests. HUD says the tool still considers gender and other protected categories.

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