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Let's all click 'Like' on Facebook's fair housing settlement

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Facebook's lawsuit settlement over fair housing violations really is historic, even aside from the importance of the issue, because law, after the usual upheaval, is catching up to technology.

In a nutshell, Facebook's advertising platform allowed property owners, marketers, real estate agents and anybody else to discriminate simply — and deliberately, perhaps diabolically — by excluding people of color, families with children, women, people with disabilities and other protected groups from receiving housing ads.

A year ago, the National Fair Housing Alliance and other groups sued. Last August, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, which enforces fair housing law, accused Facebook of violating it.

"The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination including those who might limit or deny housing options with a click of a mouse," Anna Maria Farias, HUD's assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, said in a statement. "When Facebook uses the vast amount of personal data it collects to help advertisers to discriminate, it's the same as slamming the door in someone's face."

The Fair Housing Act of 1968, the last major piece of 1960s civil rights legislation, prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, family status, and national origin. It also makes it illegal to “make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement” that would restrict housing options for protected groups.

Most Facebook users didn't know that such personal characteristics of theirs were being used, or misused, or selectively ignored, the plaintiffs said.

Facebook's settings "allowed advertisers to create ads that excluded people of color or families with children, or limited the specific geographies where people could see ads, which could perpetuate segregation in communities throughout the nation,” explained Sandra Tamez, president and CEO of the Fair Housing Council of Greater San Antonio.

That was wrong.

“Companies must understand that depending on how data is being used, it can harm people and communities," added Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center of New York. "This agreement will help other companies that rely on algorithms and data for a range of services and operations to carefully consider whether their policies, products, and platforms are illegally discriminating against consumers.”

What is Facebook doing to make things better? Several things, COO Sheryl Sandberg said in a statement:

"Anyone who wants to run housing, employment or credit ads will no longer be allowed to target by age, gender or zip code. Advertisers offering housing, employment and credit opportunities will have a much smaller set of targeting categories to use in their campaigns overall," she said. "Multicultural affinity targeting will continue to be unavailable for these ads. Additionally, any detailed targeting option describing or appearing to relate to protected classes will also be unavailable.

"We’re building a tool so you can search for and view all current housing ads in the U.S. targeted to different places across the country, regardless of whether the ads are shown to you."

Sandberg added: "Housing, employment and credit ads are crucial to helping people buy new homes, start great careers, and gain access to credit. They should never be used to exclude or harm people. Getting this right is deeply important to me and all of us at Facebook because inclusivity is a core value for our company."

Join me in clicking "Like."

Richard Mize

Real estate editor Richard Mize has edited The Oklahoman's weekly residential real estate section and covered housing, commercial real estate, construction, development, finance and related business since 1999. From 1989 to 1999, he worked... Read more ›

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