Opening Acts: March 19, 2019

Fair Housing Groups Settle Lawsuit with Facebook


Today, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) announced that a settlement has been reached with Facebook to resolve a federal lawsuit filed by the FHJC, the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA),the Miami-based Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence (HOPE), and theFair Housing Council of Greater San Antonio (FHCGSA) in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) in March of 2018. The four fair housing organizations were represented by Diane L. HoukKatherine Rosenfeld, and David Berman of the New York City-based civil rights law firm of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP.

The lawsuit stemmed from a systemic testing investigation conducted by the four fair housing organizations. The lawsuit alleged that Facebook’s advertising platform enabled housing providers, by providing pre-populated lists, to exclude populations from viewing or receiving housing advertisements based on race, national origin, sex, family status, disability, and other protected characteristics in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act and the New York City Human Rights Law.

Though Facebook denied the allegations, this agreement will resolve the fair housing lawsuit by restructuring how the Facebook ad platform operates.   Facebook has now agreed to establish a separate advertising portal for housing, employment, and credit ads (the HEC portal) on Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger. The HEC portal will limit advertisers’ targeting abilities to prevent them from illegally discriminating. Housing advertisers will no longer be allowed to target consumers based on race, ethnicity, color, national origin, gender, age, religion, family status, disability, or sexual orientation or other protected characteristics. Also, housing advertisers will not be allowed to target their advertisements based on zip code.

Facebook will restructure its “Lookalike Audience” feature, which formerly allowed advertisers to target ads to Facebook users who were similar to an advertiser’s existing customers. Moving forward, Facebook will restructure and rename this tool so it does not consider user profile categories including age, gender, relationship status, religious or political views, school, interests, zip code or membership in any Facebook groups.

Finally, Facebook will also create a page for consumers to view all housing ads placed on its platform, post a compliance agreement that advertisers must agree to regarding all anti-discrimination laws, provide anti-discrimination and civil rights educational materials to advertisers, and continually work with scholars, organizations, experts, and researchers to examine algorithmic modeling and its potential for discriminatory impact and bias.

Lisa Rice, President and CEO of NFHA commented, “As the largest digitally-based advertising platform and a leader in Tech, Facebook has an obligation to ensure that the data it collects on millions of people is not used against those same users in a harmful manner.”

FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg agreed and stated, “Companies must understand that, depending on how data is being used, it can harm people and communities. 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.” Freiberg added, “Big Tech companies run afoul of fair housing laws when they provide the tools and content that enable advertisers of housing and housing services to discriminate.”

The settlement agreement includes monetary relief for the four fair housing organizations totaling $1,950,000 along with a $500,000 advertising credit to use for promoting fair housing on Facebook. This agreement also settled four other pending civil rights lawsuits against Facebook. Click here to view the joint statement, which summarizes the settlement between civil rights groups and Facebook.

The mission of the FHJC, a nonprofit civil rights organization, is to eliminate housing discrimination; promote policies and programs that foster open, accessible, and inclusive communities; and strengthen fair housing enforcement in the New York City region.