Housing rights advocate organizations sued Facebook in Manhattan federal court Tuesday over what they allege is the social media giant’s practice of allowing landlords and real estate brokers to keep certain groups of users from seeing housing ads.
According to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Facebook allows housing advertisers access to a pre-populated list built on the personal information shared by Facebook users. These advertisers are then able to exclude housing seekers from viewing or receiving rental or sales ads based on legally protected categories, such as family status and sex.
The National Fair Housing Alliance and the other plaintiffs claim that investigations done in housing markets in New York, Washington, D.C., Miami and San Antonio confirmed what they call Facebook’s discriminatory practices under the Fair Housing Act and New York City human rights law.
“Amid growing public concern in the past weeks that Facebook has mishandled users’ data, our investigation shows that Facebook also allows and even encourages its paid advertisers to discriminate using its vast trove of personal data,” Lisa Rice, NFHA’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “It is already a challenge for women, families with children, people with disabilities and other under-served groups to find housing. Facebook’s platform that excludes these consumers from ever seeing certain ads to rent or buy housing must be changed immediately.”
The groups say they went through the ad-creation process with Facebook. According to the complaint, Facebook provides the option for advertisers to exclude families with children and women from receiving advertisements, as well as users with interests based on disability and national origin. Then, the plaintiffs claim, Facebook approves and permits advertisers to publish ads that exclude the selected groups from access without users ever knowing they have been excluded.
The housing advocates note that Facebook has been made aware that its practices could be illegally discriminating against users. The complaint notes that in October 2016, ProPublica published a report about the social media site allowing advertisers to exclude users based on their race. They said they have also raised the issue with the company.
“Facebook has known for years that its advertising platform violates civil rights laws but it has refused to change its ways on a voluntary basis,” Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady of counsel Diane Houk, counsel for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “Facebook is not above the law and must answer these civil rights claims in court.”
The suit is just the latest legal issue arising for the company, as it faces fallout around news the political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, which worked on behalf of the Trump 2016 presidential campaign, acquired the personal information of 50 million users through potentially underhanded, or even illegal, means.
On Monday, the Federal Trade Commission announced it has launched an investigation into Facebook’s privacy practices. Additionally, the Cook County state’s attorney in Illinois announced the office was suing Facebook for failing to take steps to prevent the harvesting of its users’ personal data by Cambridge Analytica.
In a statement, a spokeswoman from Facebook said that, while ”there is absolutely no place for discrimination on Facebook,” the company believes “this lawsuit is without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously.”