Facebook overhauls ad targeting in wake of housing discrimination claims

by Ryan Smith19 Mar 2019

Following allegations that it violated the Fair Housing Act, Facebook is making significant changes to its advertising policy.

Last year, several civil rights organizations, including the National Fair Housing Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit against Facebook, claiming that the company allowed landlords and home sellers to use its advertising platform to engage in housing discrimination. In August, the Department of Housing and Urban Development also filed a complaint against the tech giant.

“The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination, including those who might limit or deny housing options with the click of a mouse,” Anna Maria Farias, HUD assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in August. “When Facebook uses the vast amount of personal data it collects to help advertisers to discriminate, it’s the same as slamming the door in someone’s face.”

Facebook advertisers could use the site’s targeting filters to, among other things:

  • Display ads to only men or only women
  • Not show ads to Facebook users interested in things that might indicate the user was disabled
  • Not show ads to Facebook users interested in childcare or parenting, or show ads only to users with children above a certain age
  • Display – or not display – ads to people interested in a particular religion
  • Not show ads to users Facebook categorized as interested in particular countries or areas of the world, such as Latin America or Southeast Asia
  • Draw a red line around entire zip codes and not display ads to users living in those zip codes

In an announcement posted on the site Tuesday, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said the company was making changes to prevent housing advertisers from discriminating.

“Our policies already prohibit advertisers from using our tools to discriminate,” Sandberg said. “We’ve removed thousands of categories from targeting related to protected classes such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion. But we can do better.”

According to Sandberg, anyone running housing, employment or credit ads will no longer be able to target those ads by age, gender or zip code. Housing advertisers will also have access to a “much smaller set of targeting categories,” and “multicultural affinity” targeting will be unavailable for those ads.

Sandberg said that Facebook is also building a tool to allow users to search for and view all current housing ads in the US, regardless of whether the ads were targeted and shown to them.

“Housing, employment and credit ads are crucial to helping people buy new homes, start great careers, and gain access to credit,” Sandberg said. “They should never be used to exclude or harm people. Getting this right is deeply important to me and all of us at Facebook, because inclusivity is a core value of our company.”