Automated Ad Targeting Ensnares Facebook in a Discrimination Lawsuit

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has slapped Facebook with charges of housing discrimination related to the very nature of automated ad targeting, The Verge reported on Thursday.

The federal complaint alleges that Facebook’s ad targeting system, which allows realtors and other companies to target potential buyers based on where they currently live and other personal characteristics, is tantamount to discrimination and violates the Fair Housing Act.

Facebook “has provided a toggle button that enables advertisers to exclude men or women from seeing an ad, a search box to exclude people who do not speak a specific language from seeing an ad, and a map tool to exclude people who live in a specified area from seeing an ad by drawing a red line around that area,” an earlier complaint filed by the HUD argues.

Facebook has actually been working with government agencies including the HUD to limit the discriminatory potential of its ads, most prominently shutting off the ability to exclude users of its platform based on ethnicity and religion in August of last year.

Still, the lawsuit is big news not just for Facebook or for housing-related ads but for the digital advertising industry as a whole. That’s because it marks the first major federal attempt to use the resources of the law to curb ad targeting on the basis of racial discrimination. As interest in regulating broad tech spreads across the country and political spectrum, the lawsuit could prove a harbinger of harsher laws to come.

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Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He joined Street Fight as a contributing writer in 2015, has compiled the daily newsletter since 2016, and has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Follow him on Twitter @joe_zappa, and shoot him an email at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.
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