Housing advocates have sued Facebook for allegedly violating federal and New York laws by facilitating discriminatory ads.
"Facebook continues to enable landlords and real estate brokers to bar families with children, women, and others from receiving rental and sales ads for housing," the National Fair Housing Alliance and other groups allege in a complaint filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
The National Fair Housing Alliance and other groups allege in the new complaint that tests of Facebook's platform revealed that the company allows housing advertisers to block ads from women, families with children, and users with interests suggesting a disability or particular national origin. It's illegal to publish housing or job ads that discriminate based on factors including race, religion, sex and national origin.
"We would like them to take their obligations under the Fair Housing Act seriously, and actually implement changes to their platform that reflect the law," says David Berman, the lawyer representing the advocacy groups.
He adds that Facebook's current algorithms prevent some users from even seeing housing ads. "People who are being discriminated against have no way of knowing that they're being excluded."
The suit comes as Facebook is under increasing scrutiny over reports that President Trump's consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, harvested data from 50 million users.
In the new case, the housing advocates allege that between December 14 and February 23, Facebook accepted 40 ads that excluded home seekers based on their sex or family status. Facebook also allegedly allows housing advertisers to exclude certain categories of users -- like people who are interested in disabled parking permits, or in broadcasting company Telemundo -- from seeing ads.
"These 'interest' categories are the equivalent of demographic exclusion categories labeled 'disability' or 'Hispanic,'" the complaint alleges. "There is no lawful reason for Facebook to create this content that enables advertisers to exclude potential audience members for housing ads on these bases."
Allegations that Facebook's targeting platform facilitated illegal ads first surfaced in 2016, when ProPublica reported that Facebook enables advertisers to prevent ads from being shown to users who belong to certain "ethnic affinity" groups -- including people Facebook has identified as having an ethnic affinity of black, Asian-American and Hispanic.
After that report appeared, Facebook updated its ad guidelines to strengthen prohibitions against discriminating based on race, ethnicity, color, national origin, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, family status, disability, or medical or genetic condition. The company also said it would require advertisers offering housing and employment ads to certify compliance with anti-discrimination laws. Despite the company's move, ProPublica reported last November that the company still allowed advertisers to prevent minorities from viewing housing ads.
The company is already facing a separate lawsuit by three users who allege the company enables advertisers to block minorities from seeing housing and job ads. Those users and Facebook told a federal judge on Friday they expect to settle the dispute.
If Facebook fights the new case, it's not clear whether the company could be liable for discriminatory housing or job ads posted by outside parties. The federal Communications Decency Act broadly immunizes Web services providers from liability for activity by users. But in 2008, a federal appellate court refused to dismiss a lawsuit accusing Roommates.com of offering discriminatory housing ads. The court said in that case that Roommates may be responsible if it helped "develop" illegal ads.