Washington Post: Housing Companies Used Facebook’s Ad System to Discriminate against Older People, according to New Human Rights Charges

Sep 18, 2019

Housing companies used Facebook’s ad system to discriminate against older people, according to new human rights charges.

Two parties — nonprofit watchdog group Housing Rights Initiative and a D.C. woman seeking to lead a class-action group — filed human rights charges Wednesday with administrative agencies in D.C. and Maryland. They allege that seven housing companies that lease or manage properties in the metropolitan area used Facebook’s advertising system to target specific age groups, excluding others. They also allege Facebook’s algorithms compounded the issue by disproportionately showing the ads to younger users.

The plaintiffs did not file a charge against Facebook, which is implementing changes to its advertising system as part of a settlement over other discrimination claims. But an attorney for the plaintiffs said he plans to subpoena the company during the investigation process to study Facebook’s advertising algorithms.

The charges mark the first time a civil rights action has accused specific housing companies of discriminatory ad-targeting through Facebook, according to the Housing Rights Initiative. If successful, the case could open the door to other anti-discrimination actions against advertisers, even if those advertisers are simply using another company’s ad-targeting tools.

“It’s incredibly important to hold advertisers responsible,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, counsel at Outten & Golden LLP and one of the attorneys on the case. “To date, both Facebook and advertisers have said, ‘It’s not us, it’s them,’ to pass the buck.”

A Facebook spokesman declined to comment on the charges.

Joining the Housing Rights Initiative in the case is 54-year-old Neuhtah Opiotennione, who is filing on behalf of “all Facebook users who have been interested in housing opportunities in the District of Columbia metropolitan area and who have been or are being excluded from receiving a housing-related advertisement,” according to the filing.

Opiotennione had worked for the D.C. Public School System and was seeking housing in the Washington metropolitan area during the past year, according to the filing. Her housing budget was at least $2,500 per month. During the 12-month period, she was a regular Facebook user and said she would have liked to see housing ads. But because she was not part of the age group targeted in the advertisements, the charges argue, she was denied the ability to learn more about the housing opportunities.

Opiotennione could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Facebook has long allowed advertisers to use its algorithms to market to specific groups of people. But many advertisers have been called out for abusing those services to discriminate, either purposefully or unintentionally excluding groups of people from their target audience. The company became the subject of several discrimination lawsuits after a 2016 ProPublica investigation found that Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude users by race.

One lawsuit — brought by the National Fair Housing Alliance, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Communications Workers of America, among others — ended in a settlement earlier this year. The terms require Facebook to adjust its tools so that advertisers can’t advertise for housing, credit and job opportunities based on certain criteria, including genderage and Zip codes, which can be used to help determine race. Those advertisers also have a much smaller set of “interest” categories that can be used to target users. The changes, which the company began implementing in June, are scheduled for completion by the end of the year.

In a March blog post announcing the changes, which also includes a tool to view housing ads around the country, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg called the adjustments “an important step in our broader effort to prevent discrimination and promote fairness and inclusion on Facebook.”

Facebook is also under federal investigation by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which alleges Facebook’s ad-targeting system encourages discrimination and violates the Fair Housing Act. The agency is scrutinizing Twitter and Google for similar potential abuses.

Google, Twitter, Amazon and others allow advertisers the ability to target ads, too. But Facebook, with its hyper-targeted advertising system and more than 2 billion monthly users, has borne the brunt of the scrutiny around ads and discrimination. Nearly all of Facebook’s $55.8 billion revenue last year came from its advertising business, one of the most successful in the world.

Romer-Friedman, the attorney on the case, said detailed demographic data like age is Facebook’s “secret sauce,” information that allows advertisers to access the exact users they are seeking in a more detailed way than many other advertising platforms.

Housing has become more difficult to find in the D.C. area, with high rents and millennial-focused developments frequently pushing out residents in historically black communities. One study found the District has the highest “intensity” of gentrification in the United States.

The plaintiffs say Facebook’s algorithm further compounded the alleged age discrimination by advertisers. They say the thousands of data points on which Facebook’s ad system is based make it more likely that an even narrower, younger subset of users will see the ads. An advertisement targeted to a user between ages 22 and 55, for example, was more likely to be delivered to someone in their 20s or 30s because of Facebook’s algorithms, they allege.

The filings cite at least one case, an advertisement for Central Apartments managed by Greenbelt, Md.-based Bozzuto, where the age range targeted was 22 to 40 years of age, according to information displayed when a user clicked Facebook’s “Why am I seeing this ad?” feature.

The housing companies named in the charges are Bozzuto, Fairfield Residential (San Diego), Fore Property (Las Vegas), Greystar (Charleston, S.C.), Kettler (McLean, Va.), the Tower Companies (Rockville, Md.) and Wood Partners (Atlanta).

Greystar declined to comment. The other companies were not immediately available for comment.

The charges are being filed with the D.C. Human Rights Department and the Montgomery County Office of Human Rights in Maryland. Romer-Friedman said that after the agencies complete their investigation, the plaintiffs will have to decide whether to continue the case in front of an administrative judge, or move the case to state or federal court. In either situation, the plaintiffs will seek damages as well as an injunction that prohibits the seven companies from using social media or advertising in a discriminatory way.

Romer-Friedman said Housing Rights Initiative is likely to file similar charges against housing companies in other metropolitan areas, including New York City.

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