Within 24 Hours, Further Signs That HUD’s Facebook Probe Could Upend Digital Ad Industry

Within 24 hours of news that the Department of Housing and Urban Development had filed charges against Facebook for housing discrimination, news broke that the department is also investigating digital ad giants Google and Twitter.

Google and Twitter were reportedly notified last year that their practices were being examined for the same alleged wrongdoing that sparked the suit against Facebook: enabling “discrimination” against potential home buyers based on their personal characteristics and current places of residence, people with first-hand knowledge of those conversations told the Washington Post.

The potential legal and ethical issues at stake here cut to the core of digital advertising and far outweigh the considerations of any one industry, such as housing, or single company, such as Facebook. It’s vital to pay attention to the language of government officials when they say, as HUD Secretary Ben Carson did in a statement on Thursday, that, “Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live.” He went on, “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”

Whether Carson is cognizant of this or not—and there’s good reason to believe he and other federal officials are in the dark about the basics of digital advertising—defining targeting people with ads “based upon who they are where they live” as discrimination and prosecuting tech companies for that practice would implicate a broad swath of corporate America—not just tech platforms but also the many companies that rely on those platforms to reach potential customers—in discriminatory behavior. Carson’s understanding of discrimination in digital advertising would seem to posit the ecosystem as fundamentally discriminatory.

That is big news—bigger potentially than Lyft’s IPO and certainly bigger than a network TV actor’s juridical fate, even if cable news cannot be counted on to tell the difference.

What’s at stake in the Facebook housing discrimination probe and related investigations into Google and Twitter is whether the dissemination of online content—the news, product recommendations, advertising campaigns of all kinds, and entertainment—can and should be permitted on the basis of data collected on users’ personal characteristics and past behaviors. Should organizations, in industries as varied as entertainment, apparel, tech, and education, be permitted to use evolving technology to predict whom ads should target and thus who should see the content promoting Berkeley’s MBA program, the new housing development in Long Island City, or the hip sunglasses Warby Parker will never get me to buy? How does past human behavior and long-term inequality in various groups’ access to privileged resources shape ad targeting and the technology that automates it, and can the tech industry reach beyond those limitations to open up new futures instead of capitalizing on and reinforcing historical distinctions?

The news this week of the Trump administration’s first charges filed against a major tech company is the first step on our path to finding out.

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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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