Ben Carson’s tenure as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development hasn’t exactly been good news for the low-income people he’s meant to serve. The number of families living in unsafe public housing has increased on Carson’s watch, NBC News reported in 2018. Earlier this month, NBC also reported that residents had died of acute carbon-monoxide poisoning in a public housing complex marked safe by HUD inspectors. Carson has proposed raising public housing tenants’ rent, stepped back the department’s enforcement of fair housing laws, and failed to fill vital job vacancies at the department, hobbling its ability to perform its duties.
So it’s a bit unusual for Carson’s HUD to take bold action of any sort, especially on the subject of housing discrimination. But that’s what it did on Thursday, when it announced that it had filed charges against Facebook for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act. ProPublica initially reported in 2016 that the social media site allowed discriminatory housing ads on its platform; a follow-up report, published in 2017, found that little had been done to resolve the problem. In a statement, the department says the site’s audience-targeting tools allow users to discriminate “based on race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, sex, and disability by restricting who can view housing-related ads on Facebook’s platforms and across the internet.” HUD had been investigating Facebook since August 2018.
As the Verge reported on Thursday, HUD is concerned principally with Facebook’s audience-targeting tools, which allow ad creators to exclude groups from viewing housing ads on the basis of their national origin or gender. One map tool is particularly blatant; according to HUD’s complaint, it can be used to “exclude people who live in a specified area from seeing an ad by drawing a red line around that area.” That is, as Verge notes, a rather explicit callback to redlining practices.
Though Facebook has made some adjustments to its targeting tools, HUD believes those reforms don’t eliminate the possibility that they’ll be employed for discriminatory purposes. Facebook, meanwhile, says it’s “surprised” by the HUD complaint— a spokesperson told the Verge that the site had “eliminated thousands of targeting options that could potentially be misused.” However, the company’s propensity for enabling the spread of prejudicial views is well-established, as is its failure to consistently and responsibly address the hate speech on its platform. Recent attempts at moderation, like a newly announced ban on white nationalist content, will be hard to maintain and enforce, and it’s arguably too little too late.
In any administration, a HUD complaint against Facebook would be news. But there’s something uniquely resonant about HUD’s decision to act now, after it failed for years to enforce its own standards. The allegations against Facebook were so bad that even Ben Carson’s HUD couldn’t ignore them.