Meta To End Discriminatory Housing Ads in Midst of ‘Historic’ Lawsuit – How It Benefits Users

Bangkok, Thailand - October 29, 2021: Meta logo is shown on a device screen.
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The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division announced it has entered into a settlement agreement resolving allegations that Meta Platforms, formerly known as Facebook, engaged in discriminatory advertising in violation of the Fair Housing Act. This is the department’s first case challenging discrimination under the FHA, and Meta has agreed to change its ad delivery system, the Justice Department said in a press release. 

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Among other things, the complaint filed on June 21 alleges that Meta uses algorithms in determining which Facebook users receive housing ads, and that those algorithms rely in part on characteristics protected under the FHA, including race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status and national origin. This is the department’s first case challenging algorithmic bias under the Fair Housing Act.

“When a company develops and deploys technology that deprives users of housing opportunities based in whole or in part on protected characteristics, it has violated the Fair Housing Act, just as when companies engage in discriminatory advertising using more traditional advertising methods,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in the release. “Because of this ground-breaking lawsuit, Meta will – for the first time – change its ad delivery system to address algorithmic discrimination. But if Meta fails to demonstrate that it has sufficiently changed its delivery system to guard against algorithmic bias, this Office will proceed with the litigation.” 

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This settlement marks the first time that Meta will be subject to court oversight for its ad targeting and delivery system, the Department said. 

Under the settlement, Meta has until Dec. 31 to stop using an advertising tool for housing ads (known as the “Special Ad Audience” tool) that, according to the department’s complaint, relies on a discriminatory algorithm. Meta also will develop a new system to address racial and other disparities caused by its use of personalization algorithms in its ad delivery system for housing ads. That system will be subject to Department of Justice approval and court oversight.

Meta must also pay the United States a civil penalty of $115,054, the maximum penalty available under the Fair Housing Act.

Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division called the settlement “historic.” 

“The Justice Department is committed to holding Meta and other technology companies accountable when they abuse algorithms in ways that unlawfully harm marginalized communities,” she said. 

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In a statement to The Wall Street Journal, Meta said that it also plans to change its ads related to employment and credit in addition to housing.

“Discrimination in housing, employment and credit is a deep-rooted problem with a long history in the U.S., and we are committed to broadening opportunities for marginalized communities in these spaces and others,” Meta said in a statement posted on its website.

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About the Author

Yaël Bizouati-Kennedy is a full-time financial journalist and has written for several publications, including Dow Jones, The Financial Times Group, Bloomberg and Business Insider. She also worked as a vice president/senior content writer for major NYC-based financial companies, including New York Life and MSCI. Yaël is now freelancing and most recently, she co-authored  the book “Blockchain for Medical Research: Accelerating Trust in Healthcare,” with Dr. Sean Manion. (CRC Press, April 2020) She holds two master’s degrees, including one in Journalism from New York University and one in Russian Studies from Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, France.

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