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Facebook hasn't fixed its discriminatory housing ads problem, lawsuit claims

Housing groups said they were able to publish ads on the social network that excluded women, disabled veterans, and other large groups.

by Elizabeth Chuck /
The sun rises behind the sign at the entrance to Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park before the company's IPO launch in 2012.Beck Diefenbach / Reuters file

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Facebook still allows for discriminatory housing advertisements despite past promises to remove tools that allow landlords and brokers to exclude certain groups of people from seeing their listings, a new lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit alleges that the social media giant gives housing advertisers the option to "exclude families with children and women from receiving advertisements, as well as users with interests based on disability and national origin. Then Facebook approves and permits advertisers to publish these ads in a discriminatory manner without consumers ever knowing they have been excluded."

The suit, filed Tuesday in federal court in New York City, comes more than a year after ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization, revealed that advertisers could use Facebook to target housing ads so they were seen by only white people — a violation of federal fair housing rules.

Facebook vowed after the October 2016 ProPublica report that it would crack down on discrimination in ads for housing, employment, and credit. But more than a year later, ProPublica found that it was still possible to buy rental housing ads that excluded certain groups, such as black people, mothers of high school kids and Jewish people.

"Facebook’s platform that excludes these consumers from ever seeing certain ads to rent or buy housing must be changed immediately. Facebook ought to be opening doors to housing opportunities instead of closing them."

"Facebook’s platform that excludes these consumers from ever seeing certain ads to rent or buy housing must be changed immediately. Facebook ought to be opening doors to housing opportunities instead of closing them."

Tuesday's lawsuit alleges that while Facebook recently removed the option to exclude some of those groups, it continues to violate fair housing laws that prohibit discrimination by allowing the possibility to exclude women, disabled veterans, and other large groups.

The plaintiffs — New York City-based Fair Housing Justice Center; Miami-based Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence, Inc.; and the Fair Housing Council of Greater San Antonio — decided to sue after creating a fake realty firm and then submitting dozens of housing ads to Facebook for review in their respective housing markets.

They were able to exclude certain demographics, such as "stay-at-home moms," and get all their ads approved by Facebook within an hour, according to the complaint.

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"Facebook’s use and abuse of user data for discriminatory purposes needs to stop. It is already a challenge for women, families with children, people with disabilities and other under-served groups to find housing," Lisa Rice, NFHA’s President and CEO, said in a statement. "Facebook’s platform that excludes these consumers from ever seeing certain ads to rent or buy housing must be changed immediately. Facebook ought to be opening doors to housing opportunities instead of closing them."

The Fair Housing Act, passed 50 years ago, aims to end discrimination by prohibiting "discrimination because of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and the presence of children," according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News regarding the allegations.

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The lawsuit comes as Facebook reels from revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm hired by President Donald Trump's campaign during the 2016 election, allegedly received data from 50 million Facebook users, which the firm then used to target people with political ads.

On Monday, the Federal Trade Commission announced it was launching an investigation into Facebook's privacy practices.

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