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HUD surprises Facebook with a lawsuit

In 2016, ProPublica found that Facebook was allowing advertisers to publish discriminatory housing ad
March 28 · Issue #306 · View online
The Interface
In 2016, ProPublica found that Facebook was allowing advertisers to publish discriminatory housing ads, in apparent violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Civil rights groups, the state of Washington, and the federal government all mobilized in protest, leading to various legal skirmishes. And then, less than two weeks ago, it appeared the long-running issue had been resolved: Facebook announced a settlement with the groups suing it, and said it would eliminate additional targeting options that could let people post discriminatory advertisements.
Just when it seemed the advertising discrimination was behind us, here comes — Secretary Ben Carson of the Department of Housing and Urban Development?
“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.” […]
According to the HUD complaint, many of the options for targeting or excluding audiences are shockingly direct, including a map tool that explicitly echoes redlining practices. “[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,” the complaint reads.
And it isn’t just Facebook. Tracy Jan reports that Google and Twitter are also under scrutiny for their own advertising platforms:
The Department of Housing and Urban Development alerted Twitter and Google last year that it is scrutinizing their practices for possible housing discrimination, a sign that more technology companies could be ensnared in a government probe of their lucrative demographic ad targeting tools, according to three people with direct knowledge of the agency’s actions. […]
“They want to make sure that other companies aren’t getting away with something that one company is investigated for,” said someone with direct knowledge of HUD’s outreach to other tech companies who is not authorized to discuss the communications.
We are not used to seeing robust regulation of tech companies here in this country, particularly not from HUD, which is currently run by a man who once said that the Affordable Care Act was ”the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.“ A year ago, the New York Times found that HUD was scaling back Obama-era enforcement of fair housing laws.
As Katie Benner, Glenn Thrush, and Mike Isaac recount today, HUD has repeatedly changed its mind about whether and how to hold Facebook accountable for discriminatory advertising practices. All of which might leave you asking — why now?
Facebook is asking, too. The company sent me this statement:
We’re surprised by HUD’s decision, as we’ve been working with them to address their concerns and have taken significant steps to prevent ads discrimination. Last year we eliminated thousands of targeting options that could potentially be misused, and just last week we reached historic agreements with the National Fair Housing Alliance, ACLU, and others that change the way housing, credit, and employment ads can be run on Facebook. While we were eager to find a solution, HUD insisted on access to sensitive information — like user data — without adequate safeguards. We’re disappointed by today’s developments, but we’ll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues.” 
This statement at least identifies the apparent sticking point: HUD asked for data Facebook didn’t want to give away. I’m inclined to be sympathetic to Facebook on this point — giving away user data is a historic source of grief for the company. In the days to come, I hope we hear more about the data HUD is requesting, and what safeguards Facebook wants to place around it. A world in which Ben Carson has unfettered access to Facebook accounts strikes me as worrisome, even though the issues around housing discrimination are real.
There are meaningful issues to examine here. Housing discrimination has awful consequences, and courts may find that Facebook owes far more in restitution than it has so far provided. And HUD’s charge that Facebook’s algorithms discriminate against people even when advertisers don’t is a fascinating claim, worthy of a full airing in court.
But it also seems notable that the move comes at a time when conservatives are ramping up pressure on big tech platforms, accusing them of anti-Republican bias ahead of the 2020 election. Given the strange timing — the two sides were in settlement negotiations when the suit was filed — it’s fair to ask whether there isn’t a broader political motive at play here. The Trump Administration has, after all, resorted to intimidation tactics before.

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The People With Power on Facebook’s Policy and Communications Team ($)
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Facebook extends its Dating service to Mexico, Argentina
The Twitterization of the Academic Mind
Do technology companies care about journalism?
And finally ...
This is just a funny TikTok about Facebook
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