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September 2018

Facebook pledges improved ad policies in response to HUD discrimination complaint

Prompted in part by a discrimination complaint filed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Facebook announced changes to its real estate advertising policies. Concurrently, the National Association of REALTORS® issued a statement supporting HUD's aggressive enforcement of the Fair Housing Act.

HUD's complaint alleged Facebook's advertising platform enabled property owners to discriminate against prospective and buyers based on their ethnicity, religion and other factors including race, color, gender, familial status, national origin, disability, zip code, and other characteristics.

The HUD complaint listed several ways Facebook's platform violates the Fair Housing Act by enabling advertisers to:  

  • display housing ads either only to men or women;
  • not show ads to Facebook users interested in an "assistance dog," "mobility scooter," "accessibility" or "deaf culture";   
  • not show ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in "child care" or "parenting," or show ads only to users with children above a specified age;
  • to display/not display ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in a particular place of worship, religion or tenet, such as the "Christian Church," "Sikhism," "Hinduism," or the "Bible";
  • not show ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in "Latin America," "Canada," "Southeast Asia," "China," "Honduras," or "Somalia";
  • draw a red line around zip codes and then not display ads to Facebook users who live in specific zip codes.

In response to the allegations, the social media platform stated "there is no place for discrimination" on Facebook and said that it planned to both respond in court and continue working with HUD to address its concerns and expand its advertiser education program. Also, Facebook immediately removed more than 5,000 ad targeting options from its platform to "prevent misuse."

As part of an effort to refine its advertising tools, the company also announced a more far-reaching requirement that all U.S. advertisers agree to comply with the company's non-discrimination policy in order to advertise on its platform. Previously, only those advertisers identified as offering housing, employment or credit ads were required to certify compliance with Facebook's non-discrimination policy.

Within a few days of HUD's filing, NAR issued a statement commending the action. It read:

"In 2018, as America recognizes the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, the National Association of Realtors® strongly supports a housing market free from all types of discrimination. However, as various online tools and platforms continue to transform the real estate industry in the 21st Century, our understanding of how this law is enforced and applied must continue to evolve as well. Realtors® commend the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Secretary Ben Carson for taking decisive action to defend fair housing laws, and for working to ensure its intended consumer protections extend to wherever real estate is marketed."

HUD's complaint follows a similar action in March by the National Fair Housing Alliance. That organization filed a federal lawsuit against Facebook claiming its advertising tools allow marketers to exclude women and families with children from seeing certain housing ads.

Digiday, an online trade magazine, and various other organizations have stated media buyers may still be able to find ways around the new limitations.