The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) filed charges against Facebook on Thursday for violating the Fair Housing Act by preventing black and Hispanic users from viewing specific housing ads on the social media platform.
“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson, according to the press release. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”
The lawsuit is the culmination of a HUD investigation that began when the assistant secretary for the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) filed a complaint with the HUD in August 2018. A 2016 ProPublica investigation found that Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude users by race, and followed up that report in 2017 finding that Facebook still hadn’t fixed the problem. These reports prompted the FHEO complaint.
Besides racial discrimination, Facebook also allowed advertisers to discriminate based on parents and non-parents and Christians and non-Christians.
Facebook told the Verge the tech company is “disappointed” in the charges, maintaining that Facebook continues working to address the issue.
But as Aram Sinnreich, chair of communication studies at American University, pointed out, discrimination is just part of Facebook’s business model. Facebook curates and tailors users’ feeds and the ads they see to improve the user experience, so users don’t see random, “irrelevant” ads or posts from people they don’t care to keep up with.
“It’s not a bug, it’s a feature,” Sinnreich told InsideSources. “It’s how they make all of their money. The fact is we don’t yet have a meaningful regulatory approach to balancing our civil rights civic aims against our free speech civic aims.”
Tech platforms rely on Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA) to shield them from any legal liability for what their users post, link to or upload. On the one hand, this allows free speech to flourish on the internet and avoids putting tech companies in the role of judging truth and who is allowed to say or upload what. On the other hand, Section 230 largely allows abuse, harassment, “fake news,” “deep fakes” and disinformation to spread.
In this case, Facebook could attempt to avoid responsibility for the discrimination because it was the advertisers who discriminated, not Facebook per se.
Sinnreich said it’s no wonder the Trump administration filed charges against Facebook over this particular incident because it allows the administration to undermine Section 230, which supports the goal of silencing voices critical of the administration and the president.
“[With] Facebook, which is already beleaguered and shareholders are justifiably concerned about their tarnished reputation, the administration has put itself in the position to ask concessions from the company that would benefit the administration politically,” Sinnreich said. “By undermining Section 230, they also undermine the companies’ ability to step away from playing an active role in mediating online conversation in a way that makes them more susceptible to threats of further enforcement if they don’t, for instance, provide equal time to people like Milo Yiannopoulos and Robert Reich.”
The real root of the problem is inadequate regulation for tech platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Section 230 has always been a controversial provision in the CDA, and recent regulation like SESTA-FOSTA, which aims to curb sex trafficking (specifically child sex trafficking), shows lawmakers eager to chip away at it and hold tech companies accountable for some uses of their platforms.
“As social media has become more centric to our political processes, there have been tensions that always have been there that [have tightened],” Sinnreich said. “The law doesn’t do a good enough job of parsing the different functions of an internet media platform, some of which are like traditional media, some of like communications. That indeterminacy creates the app for political actors to exploit the ambiguity that has short term benefits for their own political set of stakeholders.”
“Whatever the noble ambition of this particular enforcement, we can’t separate this from the broader agenda of the administration, around public speech and censorship,” he said.