National Fair Housing Alliance Warns Targeted Ads May Enable Illegal Discrimination

Targeted advertising comes with some enormous benefits, but it may also come with one huge downside: allegations of housing discrimination. According to the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), a civil rights agency that filed a lawsuit against Facebook earlier this year for violating the Fair Housing Act, the same algorithms that enable investors to target their prime audiences for purchase or leasing investment properties may inadvertently be creating rampant housing discrimination.

According to the NFHA, when any platform collects information about a user’s race, religion, sex, or income and then leverages that information in its targeted advertising specifically when it comes to displaying real estate-related ads, certain users may be excluded from viewing those ads. This could create a scenario in which advertisers could completely exclude certain populations from viewing certain residential real estate ads online. Factor in the ability some advertising platforms off to market by ZIP code or designate custom geographic areas to showcase ads, and the situation becomes much more treacherous.

In the wake of the lawsuit, Facebook announced it had already removed “more than 5,000 targeting options” from its advertising platform, specifically eliminating the option to designate by race or ethnicity who could view housing-related ads. The company also emphasized it had done nothing wrong.

This past August, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also filed a formal complaint against Facebook, alleging it permits landlords and sellers to “discriminate against potential buyers or tenants on the basis of race, sex, religion, disability, and other characteristics.” For example, the HUD complaint detailed, a landlord could opt to show rentals only to men or eliminate every viewer whose profile included the interest “accessibility,” which could indicate an interest in handicap-accessible residences. The social media platform has faced scrutiny and criticism around its Fair Housing Policies since 2016, when a company reported successfully creating a housing event ad that excluded, by ethnicity, African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanics from viewing it.

Do you think targeted advertising laws should have different guidelines when it comes to housing?