Facebook’s parent company Meta has reached an agreement with the Department of Justice over allegations of displaying discriminatory housing advertisements. Facebook announced that it will change its algorithms to prevent discriminatory housing ads and settle the lawsuit filed against the company in Manhattan federal court.
The Department of Justice claimed that Facebook would target users with housing ads using algorithms that take into consideration characteristics such as race, sex, and nationality. This practice of discrimination is considered a violation of the Fair Housing Act and could have the company fined if they do not comply. Kristen Clarke, DOJ assistant attorney general of the civil rights division, commented that “as technology rapidly evolves, companies like Meta have a responsibility to ensure their algorithmic tools are not used in a discriminatory manner.”
As such, the US has agreed to settle the housing discrimination charges against Facebook if the company is willing to revamp its advertising algorithms and stop targeting audiences based on discriminatory characteristics. Facebook has until December 31st this year to come up with a new method for displaying housing ads that will then be reviewed by the government. A third-party reviewer will also have to regularly verify that Facebook is meeting the terms of the agreement.
Under the settlement, Facebook has agreed to stop using the Special Ad Audience tool, which based its algorithm on what people look like. In 2019, Special Ad Audiences was introduced to restrict advertisers from targeting people by age, gender, or zip code. However, The Department of Justice has still deemed this system as discriminatory. As a result, Meta announced in a recent blog post the termination of Special Ad Audiences. The company has also already begun shifting its focus to other approaches to improve fairness. This includes developing a new ad targeting system that can help protect users against discrimination and “make additional progress toward a more equitable distribution of ads.” The new system will apply to advertisements for housing, employment, and credit.
If Facebook manages to meet the requirements under the Fair Housing Act, the charges against the company will be dropped. However, failure to address these concerns would result in the termination of the settlement agreement, and the case will return to federal court. This means Meta would have to pay the maximum penalty available under the Fair Housing Act, which is just over $115,000.