The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has sued Facebook, alleging the social media giant has participated in housing discrimination by allowing advertisers to target housing advertisements based on protected classes (race, religion etc.).
- Secretary Ben Carson released a statement criticizing Facebook’s actions: “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”
- The complaint alleges that Facebook’s ability to microtarget users based on race, national origin, religion, disability, and sex is key feature of Facebook’s offering for advertisers and is fundamentally discriminatory, as it allows advertisers to exclude groups based on protected class status.
- The Fair Housing Act (1968), passed in response to the Civil Rights activism of the era, heavily regulates housing in the US. Facebook could face serious penalties if the complaint is found to be valid.
The allegations against Facebook, if substantiated, are an egregious example of technology’s propensity to skirt regulations. The implications of this lawsuit extend beyond social networking, however. With the proliferation of big data and machine learning, with their documented histories of discriminatory outcomes and opaque decision-making processes, it will not be long before other companies find themselves caught up in the regulatory dragnet. The safest way to avoid these sanctions is to skip collection of potentially infringing data, otherwise strict governance and data classification are requirements.