Imagine crafting an ad only for white people. Maybe you narrow down the targeting to a certain location and slice out certain ages for good measure. That might make sense if you’re trying to sell a cream-colored foundation in your Manhattan boutique, but you’d be ill-advised to try it for advertising housing or jobs — because it’s against the law.
And yet, in 2016, a ProPublica report detailed the ability to use an “ethnic affinity” option in Facebook’s self-service ad tool, allowing businesses to micro-target advertisements based on a variety of immutable demographic categories. A real estate company could use this tool to show ads for available properties only to certain races or gender.
That’s illegal according to the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which clearly prohibits “the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.” At the time of ProPublica’s initial investigation, Facebook said it would update its ad-targeting product but hadn’t as of November 2017, when ProPublica published a follow-up article. Then, in 2018, the ACLU filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that Facebook allowed gender-based discrimination for businesses advertising employment opportunities.
It finally seemed that the controversies related to ad targeting would come to a close earlier this month, when the social network announced a settlement with various civil rights groups, the state of Washington, and other regulators. Facebook definitely declared it would no longer allow advertisers to target specific users by age, gender, or zip code in ads for housing, jobs, or credit.
But last Thursday, the Ben Carson–helmed Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) filed suit against Facebook, alleging housing discrimination. As HUD Secretary Carson said in a statement, “Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live.” He noted that the ad targeting amounted to a more advanced and surreptitious version of redlining — the practice of denying people access to vital services chiefly…