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Facebook sued for allegedly allowing housing advertisers to discriminate

Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg are again under fire for data privacy practices. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Have you ever posted photos on Facebook of your kids at soccer practice? Have you talked about being a stay-at-home mom, the single parent of a toddler, or a disabled veteran? Have you ever “liked” Telemundo or written about learning English as a second language?

If any of the above are true, advertisers on Facebook may have been able to target you — or exclude you — from seeing housing ads, a new lawsuit alleges.

In the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court in New York, several fair housing groups accuse Facebook of allowing landlords and real estate companies to illegally tailor their advertisement audiences on the basis of sex, family status, number of children and other factors. This practice, the housing groups allege, amounts to discrimination.

The lawsuit comes amid an ongoing controversy over the data privacy practices of the world’s largest social network, which is frequented by more than 2 billion people every month.

Facebook is facing allegations that British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica improperly used the details of tens of millions of Facebook users to help Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election. Regulators and attorneys general across the country are probing Facebook’s role in the data collection, and the Federal Trade Commission announced Monday it was investigating the company.

“Amid growing public concern in the past weeks that Facebook has mishandled users’ data, our investigation shows that Facebook also allows and even encourages its paid advertisers to discriminate using its vast trove of personal data,” Lisa Rice, the National Fair Housing Alliances’ president and CEO, said in a statement.

“It is already a challenge for women, families with children, people with disabilities and other underserved groups to find housing,” Rice added. “Facebook’s platform that excludes these consumers from ever seeing certain ads to rent or buy housing must be changed immediately. Facebook ought to be opening doors to housing opportunities instead of closing them.”

Facebook has repeatedly vowed in recent years to stop letting marketers run housing ads that target or exclude users by race, ethnic identity, gender and other characteristics. But Tuesday’s lawsuit alleges that Facebook has continued to let advertisers discriminate, despite calls from advocacy groups since 2016 to stop such practices.

Facebook on Tuesday denied the lawsuit’s allegations. “There is absolutely no place for discrimination on Facebook,” a spokesman said in a statement to multiple news outlets. “We believe this lawsuit is without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously.”

The four fair housing groups that filed the lawsuit, the National Fair Housing Alliance and three of its member organizations, investigated Facebook’s practices in housing markets in the Washington, New York, Miami, and San Antonio metropolitan areas. They created fake realty firms and submitted dozens of housing ads to Facebook for review.

According to the lawsuit, Facebook provided the fake Realtors with pre-populated lists of groups they could choose to exclude from seeing the ads, including women or men or families with children. They could also opt to exclude people with certain interests, including disabled veterans, disabled parking permits, or learning English as a second language.

In January, for example, the National Fair Housing Alliance says it made an ad for a fake apartment, using Facebook to promote it to people in Washington. Choosing from a list of preset options, the fictitious landlord was able to exclude people with interests in the “National Association for Bikers with a Disability,” “Disabled American Veterans,” “,” and “Disabled Parking Permit.” Facebook estimated the ad would reach 1.2 million people, the group reported.

The company gathers this data through information self-reported on Facebook accounts, and by tracking users’ activity on Facebook and across the Internet. Such data is a boon for advertisers, and in turn, for Facebook. The company generated almost all of its revenue last year — some $40 billion — through advertising.

The groups behind the lawsuit claim Facebook’s practices violate the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits disseminating housing ads that indicate “any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin, or an intention to make any such preference, limitation, or discrimination.”

“If women with school-age children are categorically excluded from the Facebook advertising audience for a rental apartment in a community with high-performing schools and other amenities, they are effectively denied access to that housing opportunity,” the lawsuit states. “Facebook and its advertisers have made the ad invisible to them.”

Fred Freiberg, executive director of the New York City-based Fair Housing Justice Center, said in a statement that Facebook’s advertising platform is “the virtual equivalent of posting a for-rent sign that says No Families with Young Kids or No Women, but it does so in an insidious and stealth manner so that people have no clue they have been excluded on the basis of family status or sex.”

The plaintiffs are asking the court to end Facebook’s practice of discriminatory housing advertising and to require the company to change its advertising platform to comply with fair-housing laws. It also requests punitive damages.

This is not the first time advocacy groups have called on Facebook to change its advertising practices. In October 2016, ProPublica revealed how Facebook enabled marketers to exclude groups with what it called “ethnic affinities,” including blacks and Hispanics, from seeing ads.

In response, Facebook announced it would end the use of “ethnic affinity marketing.” It said it would require housing, employment, and credit advertisers to “self-certify” that their ads complied with anti-discrimination laws.

Still, in November of last year, ProPublica was able to buy dozens of rental housing ads that excluded blacks, Jews, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Spanish speaker and mothers of high school kids. Facebook approved all the ads, ProPublica reported.

“Facebook has known for years that its advertising platform violates civil rights laws, but it has refused to change its ways on a voluntary basis,” Diane L. Houk, one of plaintiffs’ attorneys, said in a statement. “Facebook is not above the law and must answer these civil rights claims in court.”

Facebook's actions and public statements are facing inquiries from several federal agencies regarding the mishandling of millions of users' personal data. (Video: Elyse Samuels, Patrick Martin/The Washington Post, Photo: Jeff Chiu/The Washington Post)