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HUD Files Housing Discrimination Complaint Against Facebook (hud.gov)
469 points by google_censors 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 525 comments

These are the specific points they are going after:

    -display housing ads either only to men or women;
    -not show ads to Facebook users interested in an "assistance dog," "mobility scooter," "accessibility" or "deaf culture";   
    -not show ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in "child care" or "parenting," or show ads only to users with children above a specified age;
    -to display/not display ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in a particular place of worship, religion or tenet, such as the "Christian Church," "Sikhism," "Hinduism," or the "Bible."
    -not show ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in "Latin America," "Canada," "Southeast Asia," "China," "Honduras," or "Somalia."
    -draw a red line around zip codes and then not display ads to Facebook users who live in specific zip codes.
The 1st 4 should have never been allowed. This is a 50 year old law. Its not like its something new.

How much of the responsibility falls on the Landlord, given they created the targeted ad segments?

It's not like the Facebook Ad Manager has a guided wizard for the real estate industry to target prospective tenants.

It is not like there is a physical law of responsibility conservation. Multiple entities can carry 100% responsibility.

Bless this comment. I think this is a succinct representation of the struggles we are facing as a society.

Like links in a chain, they are all required for the chain to hold.

Facebook knows exactly what kind of advertisers they have on their platform.


IANAL but it seems both from the comments here and common sense that the law only makes ad publishers liable for discriminatory ads, not advertising campaigns that target in a discriminatory way while advertisers are liable for both. Making publishers liable for the latter is also problematic and likely unprecedented because typically publishers do not have this information. Any given publisher only receives some portion of the entire advertising budget for the campaign and cannot possibly know how the rest of the budget is spent and whether the full campaign adds up to being discriminatory.

For example, if you own a newspaper that caters to people of a specific national origin, are you not allowed to accept any housing ads? By definition, any ad placement on that newspaper is discriminatory in terms of targeting - without knowing the full details of the campaign, they cannot verify that the overall targeting is not discriminatory. This means that any law that makes publishers liable must be restricted to the content of the ads and any law that goes after the demographic targeting likely limits liability to the entity - the advertiser or perhaps agencies - who have full control and knowledge of the targeting in question.

Does this make sense?

Facebook did this or housing companies used the Facebook targeting boolean option to configure ad campaigns in this way?

It doesn't really make a difference, because when housing companies use Facebook's targeting options it is still Facebook who accepts the ad and publishes it on facebook.com.

If you do something illegal because someone asked you to do it, it's still illegal.

The problem with this reasoning is that assuming the content of the ad is not discriminatory, delivering the ad to some subset of your audience is highly unlikely to be illegal. For example, if you're a publisher that owns two magazines, one of which is popular among blacks and another is popular among whites, I don't think it's still illegal to publish ads on one but not the other, again, provided that the ad itself does not have illegal contents. The onus must be on the advertiser because the full extent of the targeting for the given campaign is not knowable for the publisher. Maybe the advertiser wants to reach men on one publisher and women on another publisher, this isn't something any given publisher can fully determine. Given how advertising works and has worked in the past, it's unlikely that any law would put the responsibility on a publisher for an entire campaign to be free of illegal discrimination on the basis of an audience it reaches.

In this case the targeting of the ad is discriminatory and illegal. That is the context of the ad which is just as important as the content.

It's not obvious to me. If I photocopy an ilegal ad at Kinko's, is it Kinko's fault? If I send an illegal ad via first class mail, is it USPS's fault?

I don't think it's the ad, per say, but the agreement for delivery. It's be like you sending housing ads and asking USPS to only deliver them to men. USPS would probably be on the hook then as well.

Back to your point though, it is a new domain because with your paper examples there is no one who can "undo" the illegal ad. You copy it at Kinko's and it's not like Kinko's is out there delivering it with you. With online platforms, they both Target and deliver these ads and are responsible for continually delivering them.

Sometimes. They sold it to you.

Example: I worked at a pharmacy with the self-serve digital photo services. A customer brought in a CD and made christmas cards from a family picture.

It turns out the picture was taken by a local photographer the customer had hired. The pharmacy I worked at got the legal notice. Supposedly, we were partly to blame since we profited off of the cards the customer printed. Nevermind the fact that we didn't generally check the customer's pictures, nor could we actually have guessed these were professional vs a good picture.

The customer cropped out the identifying marks. We had all seen pictures that looked professional, both in digital and film form. It seems none of that mattered. It wouldn't be Kinko's fault that you photocopy an illegal ad, but they can be party to the fault by allowing it to be sold.

Now, the USPS probably has completely different laws protecting it. I'm going to guess it is more likely that they try to get you for mail fraud rather than actually hold the USPS responsible.

If you get photos printed at Walmart (or at least when I tried a few years ago) they make you either sign an indemnification agreement or refuse to print the photos. I remember one issue in particular - my wife had purchased some logos/prints online from someone on Etsy for a friend's baby shower. They still had the watermark on them and Walmart refused to print them without a signed release from the original artist.

That's common on the software from the companies producing the machines (we had it too), and isn't quite enough.

It is pretty ridiculous in these cases, honestly. This particular picture didn't have a "photographer's studio" setup - it was an outdoor picture with the family around a long, metal farm gate and the photographer sold the customer the CD. There wasn't much the store could do to prevent this, and we had to start physically checking a lot of pictures at that store.

>a pharmacy with the self-serve digital photo services

...Why does a pharmacy print photographies? I've never heard of a pharmacy selling something that isn't drugs.

In the US and many other countries (I can confirm this is true for Japan), pharmacies are also convenience stores, and sell many other things besides drugs.


For instance, here's a US pharmacy chain – notice it mentions photos on the home page.


In Australia, we don't have the same culture of pharmacies being convenience stores as in the US (and certainly not selling cigarettes!), or the same issues with prescription drugs (it's illegal to advertise them here like in most places), but pharmacies regularly dedicate half of their floor space on cosmetics, and it's not uncommon to have photo printing machines too - back in the days of film cameras, the pharmacy was where we would drop off film rolls for developing.

The "invasive ads", while really shitty, are for prescription-only drugs, and it's the drug companies behind those, not the pharmacies. You can't just walk into a pharmacy to get those drugs.

They're "convenience stores" in the sense that they also sell things like soap, laundry detergent, toothbrushes/toothpaste/floss/mouthwash, paper towels, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, etc. It has nothing to do with getting people to buy more drugs, it's just another thing to sell. Stores in the US tend to be bigger and stand alone, so if you've got a sizable building you want to fill it with something to sell.

In search of continues growth, pharmacies in the US had to expand their offerings.

Since someone will go there to get their prescription filled or pick up some Asprin, it makes sense to start selling vitamins, then some household essentials, and before you know it Walgreens is selling fruits and veggies.

Pictures being printed in pharmacies have been around since 90s, at least.

I did once hear that part of it is historical. That in some places, many years ago, because photo developing was a much more manual process using more primitive means, and given that pharmacists of the time were used to handling and storing chemicals, and carefully following chemical processes and so on, that there was a natural link between the two. This would be back before the time of posting your film to Snappy Snaps, or there being a centralised photo-developing laboratory with an associated chain of collection huts that simply acted as the interface to the public. Once an association is created - exposed film goes to the pharmacy to be developed - it tends to linger.

However, I've not been able to find any evidence of this. It could just be a just-so story.

It's very common in UK for pharmacies to print digital photos (and in the past, develop films). German drug stores also have this service.

What a dumb question. No, of course it’s not.

If you ask USPS to display your illegal ad in their window then it certainly is their fault. That would be an actually comparable situation here.

Well, there was a criminal case against FedEx for delivering illegal prescriptions from Internet drug stores. But it got tossed.

Is FedEx marketing itself to drug distributors as a way to filter out the chaff and get straight to the drug users of highest value?

I think not.

The geotargeting polygon was literally RED!?!

I can believe that being an oversight, but holy Shit those optics... yikes

For those outside the US who may be wondering why this is so significant:


>>In the United States, redlining is the systematic denial of various services to residents of specific, often racially associated, neighborhoods or communities, either directly or through the selective raising of prices.

Ah, thank you :)

What exactly is wrong with excluding certain areas from seeing your ad? If I'm selling high end jewelry, for example, I don't want my ad shown to people in low income areas, because every click is a waste of money. Similarly, a discount store in a bad part of town may want to exclude wealthy neighborhoods, as people from those neighborhoods are unlikely to come to the store. That doesn't seem like something anyone should be upset about...it's common sense.

I guess it's a little more murky when it comes to housing, but how many people in downtown Watts are going to be legitimate potential leads to rent a house in Beverly Hills? I'm not sure that advertisers should be forced to pay for ads to be shown to people that cannot afford or would otherwise not be interested in what they are trying to sell.


My comment was in response to a specific comment criticizing the exclusion of certain zip codes. To my knowledge, zip codes are not legally protected discrimination criteria. I suppose one could argue that they can be a proxy for excluding people based on criteria that is legally protected, however, that argument is unlikely to be successful if the primary motivation for using zip codes was to target those of certain income levels, which is also not legally protected.

In the future, before saying such snarky things (which are of little value to the discussion), perhaps you should read the comment you are responding to. The first sentence of my comment limited its scope to the location issue:

What exactly is wrong with excluding certain areas from seeing your ad?

Because zip codes can, in many cases for many historical reasons, strongly correlate with brown and black folks, which are legally protected classes.

As much as you might think you are being clever by just saying "Oh, I'm just excluding AREAS, not people" you are still running afoul of the law since you are effectively using zip codes as a proxy for race. This has been tried before and the courts aren't really fooled by it.

So, no, there is nothing inherently wrong with excluding certain areas from seeing your ad, unless you are using the area exclusion mechanism as a proxy for excluding based on race/sexuality/religion or some other protected status.

you are still running afoul of the law

The point is that you are not necessarily running afoul of the law by excluding zip codes in the absence of other evidence that you intended to discriminate. Excluding poor neighborhoods from seeing a $10 million home listing is common sense, not discrimination.

A common trend when tech companies are hit by regulation outside their direct business is to argue the regulation shouldn't apply. Sometimes the reasoning is that the issues of regulation are solved by tech, sometimes it is that the regulations impede innovation, sometimes the reasoning states that the net benefit outweighs the occasional loss.

Often such arguments are just trying to prevent regulation, but there are situations where regulation wasn't written with this tech in mind and therefore doesn't quite apply. At the very least, the discussion can be fruitful.

Redlining does not mean simply drawing red polygons on the map. To be guilty of redlining, Facebook must have known the ethnic/racial/religious composition of the excluded areas and it must have known that the advertisers were using the tools for discrimination. Quite a tall order.

I don't consider it a tall order, it's exactly what I'd expect advertisers to do with these tools, if there was no specific process to prevent them from doing so.

This case hinges on three facts. First, displaying housing ads that exclude protected classes is illegal. Second is that Facebook built tools that allowed advertisers to create said illegal ads. Finally, Facebook had no oversight process to reject potentially illegal ads. The fact that Facebook created tools that allowed advertisers to effectively cause Facebook to break the law in an automated fashion isn't really much of a defense.

>to display/not display ads to users whom Facebook categorizes as interested in a particular place of worship, religion or tenet, such as the "Christian Church," "Sikhism," "Hinduism," or the "Bible."

It says "such as"; I'm interested if this list includes "synagogue" or "Torah". Is there any place the entire list is included?

No. The point of non-discrimination is not to protect certain classes, but to protect everyone. The list to check against has to grow over time to reflect current usage.

"colanders", "pirates", "meatballs": the Pastafarians are just as much a protected class as Catholics, Jains and Druze.

> the Pastafarians are just as much a protected class as Catholics, Jains and Druze.

Only if they can demonstrate that their religious beliefs are sincere. There have been some court cases along these lines already.

Nobody asks a Christian to confirm that their beliefs are sincere, and that they aren't just pretending to believe in God, for the social benefits it brings.

Have you been watching US politics in the last few years?

At this point people just seem to make the assumption that people like donald trump are just lying about their faith as if it's a completely normal thing to assert about someone.

That exact thing happens in the UK.


For purposes of going to secondary school, I was raised Catholic. Slightly more completed my case as although my dad was an atheist, my mum thought she was taking it seriously (given how many New Age books and Hindu icons and statues she had, I don’t count her as a proper Catholic).

Well just the last week, the Dutch highest administrative court ruled that Pastafarianism is not a real religion. Do you at least see why (you don't have to agree, just understand)?

I can understand the reasoning. However, that ruling does not apply to the US.

It’s something of a cultural identity issue in the US. Mocking religious beliefs in the abstract is often acceptable, but mocking specific people is far less so.

Like I said, there have been similar court rulings in US. Look up Stephen Cavanaugh for one example.

So, yes, it does apply in US as well - you have freedom of religion, but it has to be an "actual religion", whatever that means. Things might have been different if the Constitution just spoke of freedom of consciousness or some such; but we have what we have.

This, by the way, is one of the reason why the Satanic Temple has been a lot more successful with its lawsuits so far (e.g. https://religiousreproductiverights.com/lawsuit-status/lawsu... - but also numerous cases where a mere threat of a lawsuit causes the local government to change its tune) - because it tries to present itself in a way that makes it clear that trolling isn't the only thing it is about.

There is plenty of nuance here. Washington County, Minnesota is an example of backing down vs FSM.

Really, Cavanaugh's seeking 5 million and an exemption from various prison rules put the issue in different light than officiating marriages.

Which is why the generalizing rulings is tricky and you need to keep jurisdiction in mind.

I guess you could in theory go buy some ads on fb and see what it lets you scope

In most verticals marketers will have a set of ads for different demographics: say gay, suburban, latino, black, Spanish-speaking, etc. Each of those campaigns will have different creative: for example, a real estate ad targeted to latinos will have an image showing a smiling latino couple. I can understand why the marketer would not want to show this creative to white, black, or asians -- given that they're targeting creative for a different group of people. This sort of practice seems fairly benign -- it's not about denying housing, but about targeting creative for different subgroups.

As a gay person, I see this all over the web. Smiling happy gay people buying cars or real estate or whatever. I imagine that behind each of these ads straight people have been de-selected for seeing this ad. But that doesn't mean these advertisers hate straight people or would deny a straight customer. It just means that for that specific ad and creative they were targeting gay people.

You're missing the point, though, which is not that the advertisers can target the models in the ads, but so they can choose _not_ to show ads to "undesireable" people, like people with kids, or of a certain ethnicity or religion. This sort of practice is an extremely pervasive problem that has led to enormous amounts of systemic inequality.

I think they're saying that the tool may have been used like this:

1) Create an ad targeting straight couples, and hide it from gay couples. 2) Create an ad targeting gay couples, and hide it from straight couples.

If you query for "is anyone running an ad hidden from gay couples", this would return "yes".

However, my hunch (hope?) is that the prosecution was clever enough to account for this, and are specifically finding ad campaigns which are "unbalanced" (eg; there is no ad targeting group X).

Sounds reminiscent of the separate but equal argument

It seems rather easy to solve to me.

Are the adds structured to exclude certain groups from certain properties: Problem

Are the adds structured to engage each group as much as possible: No problem.

There might be some grey area where you decide not to market certain properties to certain groups, because you think they aren't interested rather then because you don't want them.

I have kids and am of Muslim origin and I have absolutely no problem with this:

> _not_ to show ads to "undesireable" people, like people with kids, or of a certain religion

What if I have a bar in Vegas almost exclusively frequented by young people in their twenties who go their to get drunk and meet singles. Why would I want to waste money showing an ad to people with kids who will not be interested and bring way less conversions than people with no kids in their twenties? What if I open a delicatessen shop that makes most of its business on porc meat and liquor, would I get a lot of conversions by paying to show such an ad to Muslims or would I be wasting money? What you want is advertisers to show their ads to people who are not interested and lose their money. That doesn't seem fair to me. People of different family situation (kids or no kids) or religions don't always share the same interests and that's ok.

That's totally fine; the law only cares about specific markets of life-altering importance like housing, employment, and probably a couple of others that I can't think of off the top of my head.

This isn’t a blanket law against everything. Your bar ad for twenty-somethings for example is perfectly fine and exactly what everyone would do.

What is the problem with not showing rental ads to people with kids?

If landlord does not want to rent out to people with kids - I (as a parent with kids) do NOT want to see that ad.

How forcing landlord to advertise to categories they do not want to serve -- would help to anybody?

The problem is that it is illegal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_Housing_Act You can't choose to rent based on familial status.

I can't reply to you cabaalis, but the difference is excluding (discriminating) versus targeting. Targeting is legal, discriminating is not.

As in the Alamo Drafthouse is more than welcome to have a women's night event for a particular movie, but if they refuse men at the door solely for their gender, that is illegal.


Targeting is not legal when it comes to real estate advertising.

> the difference is excluding (discriminating) versus targeting. Targeting is legal, discriminating is not.

Can you articulate a difference between "targeting" and "discriminating", other than one being legal and one being illegal?

Targeting means saying it's a Foo themed event, discriminating means banning non-Foo from entry.

I wonder about the distinctions legally given machine based tools and context insensitivity and what separates identical results.

If one had a list of proxies for every ethnicity and individually assigned all but one would it qualify as legal targeting or illegal discrimination?

Would this format derived from US ethnicity census be legal: [x] White [] Black or African American [x] American Indian or Alaska Native [x] Asian or Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander

but a query of 'exclude "Black or African American"' be considered illegal even if they both map to an abbreviated form of hexadecimal B? Although it could be argued that by making the discriminators have to work harder to figure out how to exercise bigotry in advertising is a reasonable baseline.

The spirit of the law is clear but I wonder about the mechanics of it for avoiding all of the gross loopholes and technicalities and enforceability. Just advertising home listings in 'Farmer's Weekly' (for sake of example assuming it has an overwhelmingly white subscriber base) for selling an exurban house wouldn't prove discriminatory intent and short of memos giving racist directives to the marketing department being released.

That's just a municipal ordinance and not a Constitutional result. It's not much of a result.

I live in Austin and support the Drafthouse's lighthearted attempt to offer women an opportunity to enjoy themselves by themselves.

Listen, in most cities they turn away men based on gender, or make them pay a cover, while they let well-dressed women in. That is their business model. I guess they can claim that men's attraction to women is a compelling business reason, which I believe may be an exception to the anti-discrimination laws. Similar to women-only gyms saying that women's desire to avoid men while working out is a compelling business reason.

I am not a lawyer but it always struck me as unfair to a whole gender to treat them differently when they want to enter nightclubs. But of course this policy is also very ageist, biased against heavyset people etc. So do we ban that as well, since it's not something people can control?

Both situations you have cited are actually probably in violation of the law.

The issue is that nobody is really going to be bothered to spend the money to haul those things into court.

If I'm willing to spend that much money, I can apply that same amount of money and wind up using it far more effectively than getting into a specific club or gym.

I am sure there are plenty of people with money to burn if they could win such a case and make a point in the national news. In fact, they did and LOST. I don’t think such a case is winnable. Even by a seasoned lawyer.



Even a place which excludes men openly is allowed to operate, though this is borderlin. Lucille Roberts was a successful chain of female-only gyms advertising itself nationwide as just for women.


I understand and agree that it's wrong. On a purely theoretical level, I think the question is philosophical. They're not turning these people away, just not trying to draw them in. This happens elsewhere in society, right or wrong. Examples: gay bars, "black" churches, biker establishments.

It’s is specifically illegal to advertise real estate based on such criteria.


Could you please explain how exactly Fair Housing Act makes Facebook filtering illegal?

Lack of advertising is not the same as "refuse to sell".

It says right on the wiki page: Advertising the sale or rental of a dwelling indicating preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, disability or national origin.

Tech has changed so you can do the targeting. You are violating the spirit of the law. The point is if you make sure blacks, Mexicans, or women can't see your ad you are trying to exclude them.

But privately filtering who this ad will show to -- is NOT the same as publicly "advertising ... indicating preference".

> You are violating the spirit of the law.


The spirit of the law is to prohibit public racial propaganda. The spirit of the law is NOT about hunting down private biases.

> The spirit of the law is to prohibit public racial propaganda. The spirit of the law is NOT about hunting down private biases.

I have no idea what you’re talking about with the “propaganda”, but everything you need to know is right there in the announcement: “The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing transactions including print and online advertisement on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or familial status. HUD's Secretary-initiated complaint follows the Department's investigation into Facebook's advertising platform which includes targeting tools that enable advertisers to filter prospective tenants or homebuyers based on these protected classes.

So both the spirit and letter of the law forbid discrimination, and they are arguing that Facebook enables illegal discrimination on their platform.

> discrimination in housing transactions

"Advertising housing" is NOT "housing transaction". Transaction happens when landlord and renter signing renting agreement.

The FHA clearly regulates housing advertising.

>>(c) To make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin, or an intention to make any such preference, limitation, or discrimination.

There is no indication of preference/limitation/discrimination in the content that reaches the end user of Facebook.

The lengths at which you are going to rationalize racism just astounds me.

Answer me this. How on Facebook you would expect an excluded person to be able to know about the sale?

They wouldn't. The housing listing doesn't exist for them.

How do you see this as fair?!

I am blown away by all the casual racism all throughout this thread.

I am convinced half these commenters are just being disingenuous just for the sake of it. These sorts of cases are settled and straightforward, we have a half century of case law plus multiple publications from HUD that directly address this issue. Craigslist actually does an excellent job of summarizing the laws and giving specific examples of illegal advertisements.


That link says nothing about targeted ads. It talks about the content of the advertisements.

Mind you, I do think that ads targeted only to e.g. certain races are crappy and probably violate the law, but that certainly isn't as obvious from the links people are providing.

It may be easier to believe they are being disingenuous but the real answer is probably that they are in fact racist.

Its a hard truth to swallow.

The rest of this isn't directed just at you astura.

If this was some random Facebook or 4chan comment would you be so quick to come to that rationalization?

I feel we like to think the individuals we associate with on HN are like minded. To admit they aren't is almost a personal affront. To keep the disillusion going we must rationalize and make up excuses for them or how they behave.

But sometimes a duck is a duck.

Give me a break. Not everybody that disagrees with you is a racist. Landlord that prefer to not have couples with children aren’t racist.

I too am confused how targeting may be illegal under a law that forbids discrimination and discriminating content of ads - I am not familiar with the law. Lack of knowledge/understanding doesn’t make me “racist”.

Some other comments in this inflammatory thread helped me get the point, but your attacks on everybody as racists-by-defaul are deeply bigoted and insulting.

Not by default. After posting a comment supportive of denying the possibility of buying a house based on race and then making up rationalizations for why it's okay. Do you really believe in all of the hundreds of comments from various commentors that not one person here could actually really really in fact be racist?

Thinking about it, people who disagree with me by thinking that it is okay to deny housing based on race is by definition racist, no? The fact is clearly spelled out in law.

I'm not even saying someone disagrees with me. Where do you see that? I stated that there is casual racism in this thread.

I understand there is confusion in the law regarding targeting specifically. But stand back and take a look at the bigger picture of what the technology we create could allow. Like other real self proclaimed proud racists who would only use the service without understanding how it works.

It's not that it's targeting. It's not allowing those your not targeting to be part of the open market.

If you are something, someone calling it out is not an attack or bigotry. Sometimes the truth hurts.

Most people are stating that the responsibility lies within the landlords and not Facebook. There is no disagreement the landlords are being racist.

I don't see it as fair. I am not American so I am not familiar with the law. The other comment that replied to me explained why it's also illegal, without accusing anyone of racism.

I still don't believe that merely providing the option to create potentially discriminatory ads is a problem for Facebook, since the same options have perfectly valid usage. It should be the landlord's responsibility to use them correctly.

Why not disable them when it's invalid usage then?

Who did I accuse of racism? I stated people in the thread are being casually racist but didn't name any names.

Haven't we been learning as developers or operators that it's better to put processes and systems in place to prevent human error opposed to relying on human judgement alone? Why the slack with this issue?

How would you detect invalid usage? For example, targeting different text or pictures at different segments should be okay even for housing ads, as long as you don't exclude any segment.

Would you also require natural language processing to detect illegal text?

But there is selective use of advertising to target specific markets, which is an issue about which the Code of Federal Regulations, section 109.25 (https://www.hud.gov/sites/documents/DOC_7781.PDF) is completely clear:

> § 109.25 Selective use of advertising media or content.

> The selective use of advertising media or content when particular combinations thereof are used exclusively with respect to various housing developments or sites can lead to discriminatory results and may indicate a violation of the Fair Housing Act. For example, the use of English language media alone or the exclusive use of media catering to the majority population in an area, when, in such area, there are also available non-English language or other minority media, may have discriminatory impact. Similarly, the selective use of human models in advertisements may have discriminatory impact. The following are examples of the selective use of advertisements which may be discriminatory:

> (a) Selective geographic advertisements. Such selective use may involve the strategic placement of billboards; brochure advertisements distributed within a limited geographic area by hand or in the mail; advertising in particular geographic coverage editions of major metropolitan newspapers or in newspapers of limited circulation which are mainly advertising vehicles for reaching a particular segment of the community; or displays or announcements available only in selected sales offices.

> (b) Selective use of equal opportunity slogan or logo. When placing advertisements, such selective use may involve placing the equal housing opportunity slogan or logo in advertising reaching some geographic areas, but not others, or with respect to some properties but not others.

> (c) Selective use of human models when conducting an advertising campaign. Selective advertising may involve an advertising campaign using human models primarily in media that cater to one racial or national origin segment of the population without a complementary advertising campaign that is directed at other groups. Another example may involve use of racially mixed models by a developer to advertise one development and not others. Similar care must be exercised in advertising in publications or other media directed at one particular sex, or at persons without children. Such selective advertising may involve the use of human models of members of only one sex, or of adults only, in displays, photographs or drawings to indicate preferences for one sex or the other, or for adults to the exclusion of children.

Targeted advertising was already a thing when these regulations were written decades ago; internet advertising is just a difference in scale and cost.

I haven't expressed an opinion either way - I'm just quoting what the linked article says.

dennisgorelik is correct, and you are wrong, as to a specific scenario which I would still consider to be a "housing transaction". It is 100% legal to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, or any other characteristic at all when choosing a roommate (a special form of renting out your property). It is 100% illegal to place advertisements indicating that you will reject roommates based on race, sex, or other protected characteristic. So in that case, the law is very specifically about the contents of the advertisement, not about the behavior of discriminating against certain renters.

So are you saying it's not the spirit and letter of the Fair Housing Act to forbid discrimination? Or are you saying that HUD is not arguing that Facebook enables illegal discrimination on their platform?

Well, since housing discrimination is fully legal under some circumstances, I would indeed say that it is neither the spirit nor the letter of the Fair Housing Act to forbid discrimination. What is the alternative view?

I'll take a stab. You have a rental house where you want to rent out to senior citizens (for whatever reason). You put your ad in the local AARP magazine. If a young couple stumble upon the ad in the magazine, they can read the ad and apply for your rental.

However, what FB is doing is...that young couple reads the magazine and can't see the ad, but a senior citizen can.

IANAL...and for what it's worth there's a similar lawsuit for age discrimination for job hiring. Post ads only for certain age target.

> young couple ... can't see the ad, but a senior citizen can

Yes. Which is a good thing, because it saves time both to renters and landlords.

It also does not offend anyone, because there is no public age discrimination wording in the ad.

The most important part for our discussion here: there is no public promotion of age superiority in these ads. Therefore this Fair_Housing_Act does NOT apply.

> Which is a good thing, because it saves time both to renters and landlords.

When it comes to protected classes, it's not 'saving time' because a landlord acting legally is equally likely to rent to either group.

Because it's illegal to discriminate on the basis of having kids?


There are specific laws about how you can advertise real estate for sale or rent. Every real estate agent and landlord knows the rules.


That is an interesting point, kind of on the edge I guess. If Facebook really wanted to do the right thing while allowing this kind of multi-targeting, they should then build something such as segments in the same campaign.

You want to target only a specific group that, under the law, can't be targeted/avoided? Fine, but then you have to create at least 3 segments on this ad to target at least 3 different groups, to prove that you are not discriminating.

A segment would be a version of the ad (design, copy, etc) + targeted group.

edit: my point here is that it should be Facebook's responsibility to make it difficult for publisher to post illegal ads, not the other way around.

The problem is total exclusion, not targeting for sub-groups by campaign. If they wanted to target sub-groups by campaign, they could offer a service to advertise differently to different subgroups. But that’s not at all what’s happening - this is an exclusion of some subgroups, where the only feasible reason for their exclusion is their demographic, rather than the good/service being sold or the type of advertisement.

What you're describing makes sense, but would it not also be possible with inclusion-based targeting instead of exclusion-based targeting?

Is there a difference?

I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding is that inclusionary targeting is legal whereas exclusionary targeting is not, and exclusionary targeting is what's happening. Inclusionary targeting uses logic of the form, "This user corresponds to subgroup A; load content specialized for subgroup A." Exclusionary targeting is of the form, "This user corresponds to subgroup A; do not load any content for this user."

If you'd like to target a specific demographic you can do so using either inclusionary or exclusionary targeting. Only one of those systems also allows you to explicitly exclude one or more groups rather than just target a subset of groups. Your example seems to be a very charitable interpretation of how exclusionary targeting could be used. There's (probably) nothing wrong with it if it's used that way. But you could just as easily use the system you described to prevent a variety of protected demographics from being able to see the advertisement whatsoever.

It’s not even that deep or complicated. You can target however you want to except when it comes to housing. They can’t claim ignorance. When I use to run ads as a landlord in the paper, the paper had specific guidelines in their real estate section and would deny any ad that broke the guideline.


Equal Housing Opportunity. Any real estate advertising on this website is subject to the Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal to advertise "any preference limitation or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin, or an intention to make any such preference, limitation or discrimination." Georgia state law also forbids discrimination based on these factors, except that it forbids discrimination based on "disability" rather than "handicap." Familial status includes children under the age of 18 living with parents or legal custodians; pregnant women and people securing custody of children under 18. To complain of discrimination call the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at 800-669-9777.

Anyone who's ever even looked for a roommate on Craigslist has seen all this information, too. I'm actually kind of flabbergasted that Craigslist handles it correctly and Facebook does not, just given how much more competent Facebook seems based on contrasting the look of the two sites.

It’s slightly different with roommates. You can’t discriminate in advertising when it comes to roommate but you can discriminate when it comes to housing according to one ruling.


Craigslist says something different.


Under federal Fair Housing law, the prohibition on discriminatory advertisements applies to all situations except the following:

Shared Housing Exemption -- If you are advertising a shared housing unit, in which tenants will be sharing a bathroom, kitchen, or other common area, you may express a preference based upon sex only.

Private Club and Religious Exemptions -- A religious community or private club whose membership is not restricted based upon race, color, or national origin may restrict tenancy only to its members in a property that it owns, and may advertise to that effect.

Housing for Older Persons Exemption -- As discussed below, certain complexes for elderly persons are exempt from prohibitions on familial status discrimination, including the prohibitions on discriminatory advertising.

Craigslist says the same thing

>Decision-making: Although the prohibition on discriminatory advertising applies to roommate and shared housing situations, federal Fair Housing laws do not cover the basis of decisions made by landowners who own less than four units, and live in one of the units. This means that in a situation in which a landlord owns less than four rental units, and lives in one of the units, it is legal for the owner to discriminate in the selection process based on the aforementioned categories, but it is illegal for that owner to advertise or otherwise make a statement expressing that discriminatory preference.

> will be sharing a bathroom, kitchen, or other common area, you may express a preference based upon sex only.

I wonder if someone who has a particular dietary restriction (kosher, halal, gluten free, vegan, etc.) can express a preference for a like minded person.

As long as it’s not a protected class. For instance, I was once a hiring manager and everyone I was talking to was shocked when I said I would rather hire someone older and more stable. They thought I was opening them up to a lawsuit. Being under 40 is not a protected class. Being over 40 is.

I also told the recruiter that I wasn’t going to hire a guy because he smelled like cigarette smoke, I would be working closely with him and it bothered my asthma. Cigarette smoking is not protected in some states - including mine.

My understanding is that the "shared housing" clause is still only applying to landlords, not individuals seeking a roommate.

So if you're the Catholic Church running a women's boarding house on the upper east side of Manhattan, you are allowed to advertise to (and rent to) only women, but you can't restrict it further to only Catholic women.

OK, true, but I've also rented out entire units on Craigslist before too, so I've seen the full disclaimer regardless.

Speaking of which, the Roomi app might potentially be doing illegal things in turning housing search into a social network.

You wrote it backwards. Discriminating on roommates is legal.

The first cite said you couldn’t discriminate in advertising but you could discriminate in selection. Craigslist said something different.

I think the bigger problem, that you haven't addressed here, is the ongoing prevalence of the word "creative" used as a noun.

"creative" used as a noun is perfectly standard inside the advertising industry.

While true, I’ll admit to chuckling a bit.

Upvoted. I'm not saying there isn't an issue (my spidey sense says there is) but taking an advert in isolation doesn't prove anything.

> As a gay person, I see this all over the web. Smiling happy gay people buying cars or real estate or whatever.

Good lord. Does that mean that so many advertisers track your activities so thoroughly that they figured out you're gay?

In the case of Facebook, you either put this in your profile, or the kinds of pages and events that you like and interact with will give this away.

Not saying that it's not creepy, just that with the way we use the internet these days, it's not an epic feat for an advertiser to figure this out given the amount of data we put out there.

Actually in this case it's pretty easy. If you're gay and use dating apps, and didn't opt out of application usage history in your settings, the presence of those apps in your history will flag you as having that interest to advertisers. The google analytics get resold/repackaged, either directly or indirectly through data brokers, to Facebook. Facebook suddenly starts displaying ads for expensive mens' underwear.

Ha, I get ads on FB for expensive men's underwear. Their algorithms clearly have room for improvement.

Really? Google Analytics repackages and sells user data to third party data brokers?

> Does that mean that so many advertisers track your activities so thoroughly that they figured out you're gay?

There was a thing a few years back where Target was able to determine if someone was pregnant based on their purchasing habits [0].

Facebook, Google and others gather and track orders of magnitude more information than Target could ever dream of can certainly figure out if you are gay, straight, and anything else.

0: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits....

ProPublica really did an amazing job of sticking with this, considering that HUD knew what was happening and still dropped the investigation in 2016.

ProPublica does some really good investigative reporting. They are the first ones on the scene with high quality reporting on a lot of current issues. I have donated to them in the past.

HUD Secretary at the time was Julian Castro.


Doing a quick scan of his wiki I don’t see anything relevant? Or are you trying to imply something in particular and I just missed it?

Simply pointing out the leader of the department at fault. In my humble opinion, this is useful for holding bad government actors responsible.

How did they not see this coming. Are they not familiar with another dotcom called Craigslist who had to deal with this very same regulation years ago. Their counsel either wasn't aware of what FB marketplace was doing or didn't know about FHA laws.

> draw a red line around zip codes and then not display ads to Facebook users who live in specific zip codes.

This alone is really damn damning. I'm going to go out on a limb and say their counsel is really young and didn't know this was a problem. There is a lot of history in that sentence alone.

Down the the literal words "red line"[0]. For, I suppose young or otherwise ignorant people, here:

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redlining

Wow this is a despicable practice, thanks for sharing.

And its effects are still in place today. Look at Baltimore, superimpose the old redlines on, and look at property values/average income.

The "red line" wording is from the HUD press release. I don't think there is any red line in the Facebook UI, you input a list of zip codes. (https://www.facebook.com/business/help/community/question/?i...)

Not true. I was able to draw actual red lines excluding zip codes from seeing a housing ad. But this was 8-10 months ago. It’s possible they changed the UI.

Was Legal just sleeping at the wheel? This is a very well known piece of history.

I wonder how this conversation went when they were drawing up this feature.

No one at FB cares about anything. They bet (and have been right) that they can pay off whomever (“lobby”) so they can keep making $. This will result in nothing more than a little monetary fine and removal of one or two specific “features.” It’s just whack-a-mole.

Not preventing people from doing something illegal is not itself illegal?

That's not the legal test to determine if someone is afoul of the legal test that Facebook is accused of violating.

The wording of the provision they've run afoul of is elsewhere in the thread; it disagrees with you.

My point is more along the lines of Legal needed to be asleep at the wheel to let a team put together a solution where you literally draw a red line around zip codes to exclude them.


Please keep flamewar rhetoric off HN.

It's very odd that detracting from a two minute hate gets labeled as the flamewar.

I get that if everybody commenting is in agreement, then there is no "war". It's just utterly anti-intellectual, and I thought HN was above that.

You didn't detract from it, you invoked it. That's the problem with flamey rhetoric.

The problem with tone policing is that it encourages groupthink, because deviating from consensus assumptions is intrinsically aggressive (no matter how well-couched) while extremely-low-effort agreeable comments pass right through the radar.

I understand if the point is simply to keep threads from devolving into sequences of "no yuo", but I did substantiate my call-out with the larger meta-intellectual point being brushed aside. What makes this story "interesting" is the editorialization of services that have traditionally been viewed as conduits, not because it's a place to pile on anti-discrimination piety.

That argument doesn't hold up empirically. Plenty of HN users are able to disagree substantively without resorting to ranty rhetoric like you did in your last paragraph, and the disagreements are better for it.

Lofty descriptions of nobly pursuing truth ("deviating from consensus assumptions") against the groupthinking mob (everybody else!) are mostly self-flattery. People don't post ranty rhetoric because we want to strengthen diversity of opinion or anything like that. We do it because it feels good to vent. The problem is that others take it as a license to vent further, and by the time that process converges, it's all in flames. Flamewar is the ultimate groupthink, by the way; despite what the war parties say, it's always the same.

That’s bs. FB makes inferences about and collects info from people then uses it against those same people by allowing exclusions from ads.

Facebook is actively publishing these advertisements. They are breaking the law - that they do it on the behalf of someone else is no excuse.

> This is a very well known piece of history.

In a company where you have people defacing "black lives matter" posters why is it surprising that they know fuck all about black history?

I’m sure their counsel knows exactly what they’re doing. Sometimes when you’re big and bad enough it’s worth it to take a gamble and see how things will settle in court.

And that’s not even necessarily a bad thing. People and cultures change and so should our regulation and laws.

> And that’s not even necessarily a bad thing.

...what? Are you suggesting it's a good thing that we bring back red lining and other discriminatory practices?

"Please respond to the strongest plausible interpretation of what someone says, not a weaker one that's easier to criticize."


I cannot conceive of a "stronger" explanation for what the GP stated. What kind of good faith argument could possibly be assumed in that guy asking that maybe reexamining Redline laws isn't the worst thing. It's a vile thing to say, and a statement made, I can only assume, in utter and wanton disregard of racial history of the United States.

It's a bit shameful that you flagged the parent and not the grandparent, who seems to be playing devil's advocate purely for the sake of an argument.

It's very clear what they were saying, is that if one follows the law at all time there is no chance that a bad thing will "accidentally" happen.

You are actually the one violating that policy.

Reading charitably, perhaps they meant: it was bad in the case, but it isn't always a bad thing.

I don't think that's what's being suggested. The idea that redlining should be reexamined by the courts every half century or so is what's being suggested. In 2018, courts ought to find its still illegal give facebook a book fine. In 2118? Hopefully we'll be past racism and courts will find the concept obsolete and antiquated. Or they may find racism is common but the tools needed to manage it are different.

The Internet has a great search for secret closet racists, but they're pretty rare. For the most part, it makes sense to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Having been in a mixed-race relationship where one partner is brown, I can tell you firsthandedly that if you think racism is rare, then you’re probably white or Asian or you have consistently lived in areas where racism is actually rare. I lived in places where when I was young, I never saw anyone engage in racist behaviors. This changed the moment I entered that relationship. It may have ended long ago, but it’s definitely made me more aware of the subtle ways that people show prejudice when it’s not outright. Is it a majority? No. At least one in ten? Much closer to reality. We’ve got a long way to go, even still. Don’t forget that schools were still segregated in America less than a century ago — there are leaders in government and industry that grew up in that environment. You’ve got at least two generations to die off before we can really say that the impacts of that era are negligible.

And there are still plenty of places in south where people think "miscgenenation" is a sin.


if you think racism is rare, then you’re probably white or Asian

I sincerely hope this isn't an intimation that Asians are somehow immune from forms of racism or racially charged behavior?

Would you be able to clarify this a bit? Maybe I've misunderstood you.

Definitely not the implication. Everyone can receive racially charged behavior, however the outright hostility towards lighter-skinned Asians in the United States is significantly lower than towards other minority groups as well as darker-skinned Asians.

Fair enough.

Consider me a bit incredulous of that argument.

I guess, as a man of color I'm hesitant to create some sort of ranking system as to "who's getting whipped harder" as a metric when it comes to racial discrimination of all its permutations.

How do you think Uber and Airbnb became legal?

> ...what? Are you suggesting it's a good thing that we bring back red lining and other discriminatory practices?

Putting words into people's mouths like that is incredibly rude, and dishonest.

That might be phrased stridently but it's not 'putting words into someone's mouth'. It's a question.

I think OP could have found a better way to word it which wouldn’t seem so hostile and accusatory, if they spent another few seconds before clicking ‘reply’.

I think there's something in the guidelines about how if you're going to yell at someone for being rude, you should take care to give them the most charitable and accurate yelling possible.

If you dont show someone an ad, that's not discrimination. It's just not advertising to a group of people.

It's a form of discrimination though admittedly not the most egregious form of discrimination. The HUD has explicit regulations and guidelines involving "Selective use of advertising media or content" and "Selective geographic advertisements".

The legal threshold for discrimination is set a lot lower for housing than it is in other scenarios For good reason too -- the consequences of discriminated, for example, at a coffee shop are far less impactful than being discriminated for what housing you can find and obtain.

How did they not see this coming. Are they not familiar with another dotcom called Craigslist who had to deal with this very same regulation years ago.

I guess "move fast and break things" applies both to code and the law.

> draw a red line around zip codes and then not display ads to Facebook users who live in specific zip codes.

This is actually somewhat odd in this context. Obviously if you're advertising housing in Boston you don't want to be advertising it to people in Washington or China, or probably even Springfield. So you need some way to specify a set of regions and zip code is the obvious way of doing that.

No, specifying individual zip codes sounds like the worst way to do that. The obvious way is to have a max distance slider.

Except that that doesn't work when you're advertising housing in Florida and you want to advertise to people in the Northeast who want to retire somewhere warm but not people in the South who already live somewhere warm.

It is almost as if we have geographic areas larger than zip codes such as cities, states, regions, that can be targeted without running afoul of laws about targeted advertising of real estate.

If you exclude all of Oakland specifically because it's full of minorities, you're discriminating based on race. If you exclude one tiny neighborhood because it's on the other side of a mountain and is physically a part of a different area than it's administratively a part of, you aren't. Granularity isn't the problem.

And state or regional real estate advertising doesn't work because basically nobody in San Francisco is looking for housing in Los Angeles or vice versa, much less San Francisco and Phoenix.

That's far less precise. As the crow flies is often not a very good indicator of potential customer base. National borders, rivers, transit design, competitor locations, etc can all mean that you might find yourself serving plenty of people 20km away in one direction but practically none 5km in the other.

It can get much more granular than that. E.g. you may not want people living in certain neighborhoods to see your property listing.

Perhaps they did, but figured that on the balance, the profit will outweigh the penalty.

Man, I wish I could be so optimistic to think they just didn't know any better.

Here are the likely relevant laws in question:

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_Housing_Act

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Rights_Act_of_1964

By law you cannot discriminate by any designation of protected class, which includes not only parties to a business transaction but also messaging and opportunities there upon.

I do understand why Facebook would allow ad display filtering by race and other demographic categorizations since they are a media organization who sells advertising. Whether or not that practice is morally qualified or agreeable it makes sense from a business perspective (oh how I do detest advertising).

What I don't get is why Facebook would allow ad suppliers the option to set values to these filters. Facebook has the data to make optimal demographic determinations for a geographically centered business market. Perhaps this indicates that either Facebook isn't very good at that or that ad supplies prefer to perform their own independent research out of distrust or lack of availability from Facebook.

Anyway, this does look like a valid complaint. I wouldn't just sue Facebook though. I would also seek for discovery of the ad suppliers and sue them as well. Facebook is just the proxy here. Somebody is making a deliberate determination to racial profile in violation of the spirit of the law.


EDIT. See the third bullet point here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Rights_Act_of_1968#Types...

Of course Facebook should allow racial filtering. Not understanding this is a fundamental failure to understand minority businesses. Let's say hypothetically you're selling a product that is highly ethnically selected, like beauty products (before any criticism keep in mind that the first self made American female millionaire, cj walker made her fortune on beauty products) - should you be forced to buy advertising impressions for the majority that has no use for your product? Basically this would create a huge disadvantage/drag to minority entrepreneurs seeking to capitalize on a niche market and grow.

Of course Facebook should allow racial filtering. Not understanding this is a fundamental failure to understand minority businesses.

This isn't about makeup, or placing ads in a targeted magazine like Ebony. It's about real estate and housing, and the laws governing that kind of advertising are well-established and very clear.

I worked briefly in large multi-unit housing, and got some of the training related to this sort of thing (though not specifically to advertising).

We were taught that if you're showing an apartment building to someone, you can't ask their age. You can't ask if they have children. You can't ask if they're pregnant.

You can't even do seemingly innocent things like ask a woman who is pregnant or visiting with children if she'd prefer a unit near the playground. Or suggest a ground-floor unit to a person in a wheelchair, even if the building doesn't have an elevator.

Maybe it was just this company's lawyer's overreactions to the law, or perhaps the company had previous bad experiences in this area. But we were given dozens of similar scenarios and those who answered even one incorrectly had to go through enhanced training.

Parent post asked the question in general, not specific to housing.

Incorrect. The parent cited housing law quite specifically. The first link at the top of the comment has the word "housing" right in the title.

No, dnautics is correct. I phrased the racial profiling subject irrespective of the housing subject even though I did post links related to real estate anti-discrimination.

When I wrote the comment I wasn't thinking of retail consumer goods. Strictly in the context of geographic markets my comment was more valid, but in the context of beauty products (as the provided example) it doesn't make any sense.

> I do understand why Facebook would allow ad display filtering by race and other demographic categorizations since they are a media organization who sells advertising. Whether or not that practice is morally qualified or agreeable it makes sense from a business perspective (oh how I do detest advertising).

That's them agreeing with you that it's not illegal in the general case, and makes sense, even.

But the very start of the post says it's illegal for housing.

Nobody is arguing legality. I'm making a moral (not business) argument for allowing discrimination in the general case, on the grounds that disallowing discrimination disadvantages minority entrepreneurs.

I agree with you that a black female should not have to pay to send ads to a white male for her hair weave products. FB should allow this level of segmentation and discrimination based on race for both moral and business reasons.

Housing is a regulated industry where discrimination in certain ways is not allowed. The idea is allegedly that a room is a room and a tenant is a tenant, regardless of race or age or etc. The government has decreed that housing is too important of a consumer item to allow landlords to police themselves.

Unfortunately, many landlords find ways to skirt the law.

And in the case of sub-leasing and finding roommates, discrimination is totally legal. I can make a post saying "female only". Additionally, upon an in person meeting, I can even turn away a roommate who is female but isn't Asian for example.

Except that’s literally illegal in housing.

Yes it makes sense in other contexts, but it should never have been allowed here.

I’m surprised it took this long for them to be sued. Just like job notices they’ve been allowing blatantly illegal ads for a LONG time.

I’m surprised it took this long for them to be sued.

With people like Bosworth and Zuckerberg at the top and Sandberg as consigliere it's no surprise at all. Tone at the top has a huge effect on internal controls.

I’d agree but it’s the corporate counsel’s job to make sure they know about this stuff. Did counsel never tell them ‘you MUST do something about this’, which seems like a huge failing, or has it been brought up and the executives decide ‘oh well we don’t care’ which would be a REALLY BAD thing to have a court find out about.

This is all so easy to avoid. Maybe you’d get sued when someone claimed you weren’t doing enough but they’re not doing ANYTHING. The lowest possible bar.

If there are good reasons why one ethnicity would prefer housing over another (or, equivalently, if the housing provider would prefer them) then it's just like the beauty products thing and discrimination in advertising should be allowed. And if there aren't then it's hardly worth the time to ban it-- anyone who engaged in it would be wasting their time.

So although it seems unclear whether that conditional is met, either way I don't see why we would ban such advertising.

> If there are good reasons why ... the housing provider would prefer them

Housing is a neccesity in life. Therefore, discrimination by housing providers is a real problem. Being excluded from parts of the housing market is very different from being excluded from parts of the beauty market. Even more so because housing viable for e.g. white people is equally viable for black people. Whereas the same does not hold for beauty products.

Now, if indeed the other case were to occur (where one ethnicity is not interested in certain housing, and advertising reflects this) that would be less obviously bad. However, like I stated it seems less likely that this would occur. Moreover, this is a very convenient cover for people who do wish to discriminate.

My question would be if an advertiser advertised housing in a demographically targeted publication, for example, a publication focused only on single gay men, if that would necessarily function as discrimination since single mothers wouldn’t be reading that publication, nor those ads. Facebook allows demographic targeting that just happens to be more “effective,” but no more discriminatory that the way conventional targeted “offline” advertising works now. Advertising housing in a newsletter for Jewish people, does that not result in discrimination against non Jews since they wouldn’t see that ad? It seems that as long as the housing and the ad content itself weren’t discriminatory, the law would seem to be upheld. What this suit seems to be saying is that you are obligated to advertise your housing where every protected group would have an equal chance of seeing the ad, anything less would be discriminatory right? The very slippery slope is that housing ads themselves could only appear in official, government publications otherwise some group or another would be discriminated against since they wouldn’t normally see the ad.

I find those to be distinctly different qualities even if the end result is similar. The distinguishing factor is: Who is performing the discrimination?

In one example the discrimination is deliberately performed by an ad supplier. In the other example the discrimination is performed by the audience of the offline publication. I come to this conclusion because it is the audience that is choosing which demographically targeted publications to purchase or read. People cannot legally discriminate against themselves.

That distinction is also a paradox for Facebook. You cannot be a supplier to everybody and simultaneously to a targeted individual as chosen by individual's inputs. Facebook tries to have both sides of a coin by allowing users maximum flexibility in content preferences and also provide that power to ad suppliers to use for precision targeting.

I also assume that the further you get from overt discrimination based on a protected class the less issue you’re likely to run into. After all, ads on sites or magazines have to be selectively run and each site or magazine has some demographic.

Added: HUD lists some advertising practices that it prohibits but obviously the smaller the scale and the grayer the intent, the less likely a complaint.

In the example, the building owner/manager isn't randomly choosing a publication to put their ad in. They are acting to discriminate against people that don't (or are merely highly unlikely to) read the magazine.

So? Are the ads in the selected publication forcefully shown to a person otherwise not choosing to read the publication or forcefully denied from a person choosing to read the publication?

Discrimination, in this regard, only occurs if somebody is made to consume or is denied content on the basis of a protected class status.

So you didn't really address it in that sense in your other comment.

I guess I don't see how ad targeting involves force either (it just happens to be effective), but whatever.

> It seems that as long as the housing and the ad content itself weren’t discriminatory, the law would seem to be upheld.

That's not the issue. The issue is the application of demographics filters. While most publications have a self-selecting audience, the publications themselves do not apply those kind of filters, especially with regard to showing advertising content to a subset of readers.

As you point out, Facebook targeting is not anything qualitatively new; it's the same old tools, just cheaper and more fine-grained. And the law was written to prevent those same tools from being used to discriminate.

According to Code of Federal Regulations 109, for example, your hypothetical would indeed be discriminatory (https://www.hud.gov/sites/documents/DOC_7781.PDF, search for "Selective use of advertising media or content")

Quoting the relevant section:

> The following are examples of the selective use of advertisements which may be discriminatory:

> (a) Selective geographic advertisements. Such selective use may involve the strategic placement of billboards; brochure advertisements distributed within a limited geographic area by hand or in the mail; advertising in particular geographic coverage editions of major metropolitan newspapers or in newspapers of limited circulation which are mainly advertising vehicles for reaching a particular segment of the community; or displays or announcements available only in selected sales offices.

(The rest refer to selective use of the "equal opportunity" slogan and logo, and to selective choice of human models to e.g. exclude children in housing ads.)

If a housing provider has a policy of only advertising in targeted publications, that is an issue. Same goes if it only holds for a subset of their offering (e.g. only for 'jewish neighborhoods'). However, if there is a decent enough effort to also advertise in widely read publications, there doesn't seem to be an issue.

I would say, using targeted publications 'in addition' is not an issue, but using them as the 'main avenue' is an issue.

Seems to me that the courts and the public are becoming much less tolerant of companies operating on Google scale, where most things are decided by algorithms and a human never sees it at all. This might serve as an upper bound on the size of future companies: if you might have liability for every single ad or comment you let someone post, you’re going to want human review of all that content.

I think that the public and the courts are correctly recognizing that the excuse that a human never sees something doesn't exempt an organization of the regulatory burden borne by companies where the work is done proportionally more by humans.

If Facebook, Google, et. al want to run advertising companies they have to properly conduct themselves in the current regulatory environment, if their competitive advantage really just boils down to the fact that they are ignoring the rules then there should be a market correction based on them being subject to actual enforcement.

(This is separate from how anyone feels about the actual rules, I think it is reasonable to say that everyone should agree that if there are rules they should be universally applied.)

The problem here is that this is the exact opposite of what's going on - the competitive advantage of many smaller companies these days is that they are not even close to being compliant with regulations but platforms often tolerate them because they are not responsible for counterparty compliance.

If you do however put that onus on the platforms, then it's entirely predictable that platforms will cut ties with small businesses. This is more or less what happened with GDPR - lots of small ad-tech players became large liabilities for others in the value chain, leading to more consolidation in the industry. Outside of technology, it's common for certain types of services or tools not to be made aware to small-time customers. The technology industry at large and the large tech companies in particular have so far bucked this trend in a way that created a huge amount of value for the world at large, but this doesn't have to be this way.

In this case who are the smaller companies you are referring to specifically?

If the small companies in question are gaining competitive advantage through non-compliance that makes them viable enterprises then it is good and correct that they should be forced to change their business model and compete with the same rules as everyone else, right?

I don't understand what you are saying with this: "Outside of technology, it's common for certain types of services or tools not to be made aware to small-time customers. The technology industry at large and the large tech companies in particular have so far bucked this trend in a way that created a huge amount of value for the world at large.."

> , if their competitive advantage really just boils down to the fact that they are ignoring the rules then there should be a market correction based on them being subject to actual enforcement.

I highly doubt that the majority of advertising business for Facebook and Google comes solely from discriminatory housing ads.

I also doubt that it is a majority of their business, but I think it would be interesting to find out just how much of their revenue is represented by discriminatory advertising across many domains (housing, hiring, for example), political advertising that may be dubious or illegal, and outright solicitation for scams. And then to think about how their revenue would fall and their costs increase if they are obligated to make a sincere effort to eliminate these items from their portfolio.

>I think it is reasonable to say that everyone should agree that if there are rules they should be universally applied

What happens if the rules are bad rules? E.g. if it's illegal for Facebook to allow advertisements for marijuana dispensaries on a federal level? Clearly that's not something we'd want to see universally applied.

I think that if it were the consensus view of Americans that dispensaries should not be permitted to advertise then such a regulation is ok.

I think that if corporation wants to engage in a form of civil disobedience then that act should be recognized and treated by the authorities appropriately, not treated like it is not happening in the first place. The point of an act of civil disobedience is that it has consequences that you are willing to withstand to serve the greater good, just getting away with something is not the same thing.

What exactly is your argument? That if there's a bad law on the books, we shouldn't have laws?

My argument is just that not all laws are good, and following the law does not equate to doing the right thing.

Whilst that is totally correct morally, law enforcement must be very careful about applying that. There is a trade-off between having a stable and predictable set of laws (i.e. strict enforcement) and having room for judgement calls when the letter of the law is unfair (i.e. discretion in enforcement).

I understand when regulators decide to side with strict enforcement when a companies only advantage comes from not following the rules. Especially when it is disputed the rules shouldn't be there.

And they’re free to take that position and face the consequences.

Or perhaps that if the law is bad, we should engage in civil disobedience.

Yes, Facebook should commit civil disobedience by explicitly allowing housing ads to not be shown to black people. Great plan.

Giant multinational corporations are squarely last in the "queue of parties that ought to commit civil disobedience."

I agree in this case, but I’d disagree if it were Apple refusing to unlock iPhones for authorities, so I’m not sure I can agree this is universal.

Only if you start with the assumption that everything to do with them is evil. At the end of the day, they still employ and support thousands of people. There certainly are many cases in which they do the wrong thing, but their power for good should also be embraced.

Companies operating on Google scale should also have the scale to ensure that their ad platform doesn't enable people to target ads discriminately, especially when it's on something like housing where there are laws against that. They're probably more worried about their quarterly results and shareholders than they are about potential problems until it becomes a big problem.

Let this be a lesson to all shareholders that they should pressure companies to operate lawfully and that companies have a fiduciary duty to them to obey laws.

Right, except what does scale had to do with anything? The law is there regardless of the scale.

Scale is what gives these companies some cover from "not having human review". Not having human review is what made the scale possible.

last company i worked at we built a PaaS for banks and credit unions that handled mortgage applications.

you wouldn't believe how much time, effort, institutional knowledge, and expertise we applied to regulatory auditing, reporting requirements, and fraud detection per federal guidelines.

we were less than 80 employees total.

hardly a burden for the likes of google.

This is a very easy thing to avoid though:

if (ad target == anything to do with housing) {disable options to exclude ethnic affinity [and a bunch of other things]}

It's not that easy, because there are many proxies that correlate with protected categories. For instance, take a look at the greater DC area with census data on race. You can easily target regions without explicitly using race.


If they lock down microtargetting for housing related ads and have some code to flag housing ads posted in different categories they become compliant with the law. Nobody says they have to be 100% perfect to be compliment.

Sure, but if you think the law serves a purpose, then one may ask whether being technically compliant is success.

"if you think the law serves a purpose" Surely it is not controversial here to suggest that anti-discrimination laws serve a purpose and therefore if someone finds a loophole that does not mean it is just fine?

I was just reading in Jalopnik about how Toyota added reinforcement to their minivan to deal with small offset driver's side impacts, and then when a test for a similar passenger side impact was done, surprise surprise, there was no symmetric reinforcement on that side!

It's a start. They weren't even doing that.

You're responding to me as though I was providing Facebook's defense for not complying. I wasn't. I was saying that if Facebook technically complies, that isn't necessarily sufficient.

Your use of the phrase "it's a start" suggests that further restrictions will follow.

No, it implies that they at least appeared to be trying, even if it wasn’t very effective.

As it is they don’t seem to have put in the smallest possible effort to comply and decided to ignore the law completely.

Is it more important that they "appear[] to be trying" than that the policy imposed on them actually achieve the ostensible policy goal?

For their legal case? I’d think so. It looks way better that you were trying to do something and weren’t very effective than that you decided not to bother.

For their need to comply? No. They have to follow ineffective laws as long as they’re on the books.

Where did people jump to the conclusion that following the law is incompatible with the goal of the law? Saying that it might be insufficient is a different matter.

It's not that easy

If a small town newspaper with a staff of 30 can do it, Facebook has both the staff and resources to do the same.

If it cannot, or will not, it should not take advertisements for sectors that are regulated.

But small town newspapers are endangered by those costs! Facebook only makes about $6 ARPU. Automating the crap out of everything is what enables them to exist.

Elaborating a bit on the sibling comments, Facebook has no "right" to exist as a business. If the only reason it can exist is by ignoring laws with which other businesses are able to comply, it should be shut down (or alternately, forced to obey those laws and then "corrected" out of business by the market).

>Automating the crap out of everything is what enables them to exist.

If they're too big to be accountable then maybe they shouldn't exist.

cry me a fucking river, Facebook.

Then it can't exist. Worse things could befall the world.

What about this complaint would prevent Facebook from addressing it without humans involved? All they're going to do is revoke microtargeting abilities from housing ads.

How do they determine what's a housing ad?

There's two pieces to this a) Facebook makes this possible and b) Facebook damns themselves and promotes that they make this possible for housing. Part b is easy to fix: make it harder to do housing ads that are targeted. However, part a is much harder: what stops me from advertising my AirBnb listing as a URL on Facebook as a "generic ad"?

"How do they determine what's a housing ad?"

You ask the user to say what type of ad it is, under penalty of violation of contract, and contractually obligate them to carry the legal risk if they lie.

There's no requirement that it be done via some fancy ML algorithm. I would expect that unless FB actively attempts to piss off the government, that would pass legal muster. Goodness knows I've signed enough agreements where I've agreed to very similar clauses just in normal day-to-day life.

I’m afraid that the law being used to accuse Facebook would apply in that case too.

Are you saying that as a lawyer who is aware of this area of law, or are you saying that as a random internet person? I'd be more than a little surprised if your guess is correct. Normally, in my understanding, if one makes a good faith attempt to follow the law, one is normally in the clear. One does not become culpable when one's efforts to comply are stymied by fraud on the part of a third party.

Then again, I'm just a random internet person. If you're a lawyer, or if you can provide chapter and verse, I'll shut up.

> contractually obligate them to carry the legal risk if they lie

The government is under no obligation to look at the terms of a civil contract when they decide who to prosecute.

Furthermore, Facebook has already tried this. After the first ProPublica article (last year, I think) they added a “I’m not breaking the law” checkbox.

How do they determine what's a housing ad?

The same way that newspapers, television stations, radio stations, magazines, and advertising agencies have for the last 200 or so years.

And they didn't have super-duper AI, the smartest people on the continent, and warehouses full of servers to help.

> what stops me from advertising my AirBnb listing as a URL on Facebook as a "generic ad"?

By not permitting Airbnb URLs as generic ads.

Edit to ad: and placing a warning if it looks like it might be a housing ad: “this looks like a housing related ad and has been flagged for moderation”

How do they determine what's a housing ad?

By doing it.

Facebook loves to try to play both sides, and claim to paying customers that it absolutely has the ability to do a thing, while turning round and saying to regulators that it is only a poor helpless social-media network utterly lacking in the ability to do such things.

If even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the capabilities Facebook claims in its materials for advertisers are genuine, it can figure out which ads are housing ads.

Have heavy fines in the TOS (communicated upfront) about illegal adds. This gives FB an incentive to police themselves, and lets the bad-actors pay for the enforcement.

I think you're conflating two unrelated dimensions - automation and size. Traditional ad-buying for TV operates at scale but without much automation. Meanwhile, there are plenty of players in the ad business that aren't particularly large but operate without much human oversight.

What this does is increasing the cost of serving small customers, while having negligible impact on the cost of serving large customers. This likely means companies like Google and Facebook will stop serving small businesses that cannot guarantee a certain budget. In a way, we live in a fairly rare time in that a small startup has access to AWS, Azure, GCP, FB ad manager and Google adwords, getting access to most of the same functionalities afforded to larger companies, while operating on tiny budgets without needing account management. This isn't true of many other industries or even services within the same industries. As is, I don't think small businesses are particularly profitable segments for these companies.

This is exactly what already happened with Youtube demonetization - the increased scrutiny on content safety and importance of having human content auditors made monetizing large groups of small-time publishers on Youtube entirely uneconomical for Google. So they got the boot. So in a sense, we should conclude the exact opposite here - automation is what allows a level-playing field for small players and if you take it away through putting a huge amount of pressure on platforms to police behavior of individual customers, it will accelerate consolidation in other industries.

On the other hand, this doesn't seem like an issue of algorithms at all.

I was reading the list you edited out and I was like "yeah I don't want to live next to any of those", I wish there was app for doing the reverse about your neighbors before you rent a place. Then I felt bad for thinking that thought.

For what it's worth, I edited it out because I couldn't figure out the formatting!

I think you’ve piqued everyone’s curiosity now.

It was just the list of offenses mentioned in the article.

Old and irrelevant laws have always been dampeners on company growth. Hopefully a Chinese Company might come up with a classifieds website that US citizens will be able to use.

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