Housing Secretary Ben Carson has joined lawyers from the Justice Department and others accusing Facebook of enabling discrimination by landlords using the company’s advertising tools.
Carson’s action follows two years of investigation and could lead to a federal lawsuit against the company, the Washington Post reports. Facebook is accused of creating advertising tools that sniffed out phrases such as “English as a second language” and “handicapped parking spaces,” that resulted in violations of fair housing laws.
According to the Post:
The move by the Department of Housing and Urban Development came on the same day the Justice Department targeted Facebook on similar issues. In that action, the government took the side of several fair-housing groups in opposing Facebook’s efforts to have a discrimination lawsuit dismissed, arguing that Facebook can be held liable when its ad-targeting tools allow advertisers to unfairly deprive some categories of people of housing offers.
Taken together, the moves mark an escalation of federal scrutiny of how Facebook’s tools may create illegal forms of discrimination, allegations that also are central to separate lawsuits regarding the access to credit and employment opportunities, which, like housing, are subject to federal legal protection. The federal actions also suggests limits on the reach of a key federal law, the Communications Decency Act, that long has been interpreted as offering technology companies broad immunity against many legal claims related to online content.
Advocacy groups are already taking on Facebook over claims of discrimination. The National Fair Housing Alliance is leading a group in a federal lawsuit filed in March over the issue.
Facebook asked for that lawsuit to be dismissed, claiming immunity because it was an “interactive computer service.” The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey S. Berman, sided with plaintiffs in that case, saying that Facebook is an Internet Content Provider because it collects and analyzes data that advertisers can use to reach a specific audience.
“Facebook is one of the largest adverting companies in the world, and instead of using its vast resources to create more open markets, our claims assert that data is being harnessed in a way that perpetuates systemic bias in housing markets,” said Lisa Rice, president of National Fair Housing Alliance.