Jun 21, 2022 - Technology

Meta to rework housing ad system under DOJ discrimination settlement

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The Justice Department on Tuesday said it has settled allegations that Meta's housing advertising system discriminates against Facebook users, with the social network agreeing to change its housing ad delivery system.

Why it matters: The settlement was obtained in the DOJ's first lawsuit challenging algorithmic discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. It will subject Meta's housing ads system to court oversight.

What's happening: The Justice Department said Meta's housing advertising system discriminated against users on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status and national origin.

  • The DOJ said Meta encouraged advertisers to target their ads by relying in part on those characteristics to decide which users would be eligible and ineligible to receive housing ads, with the help of in-house tools like Special Ad Audience.

What's next: The company will develop a new system for housing ads to address disparities for race, ethnicity and sex between the advertisers' targeted audiences and the users who actually see the ads.

  • The DOJ said it will review whether the new system addresses the issues, and warns it will litigate if it is not adequate.
  • Meta also agreed to stop using the Special Ad Audience tool for housing ads.

What they're saying: "Because of this ground-breaking lawsuit, Meta will — for the first time — change its ad delivery system to address algorithmic discrimination," U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York said in a statement.

  • "But if Meta fails to demonstrate that it has sufficiently changed its delivery system to guard against algorithmic bias, this office will proceed with the litigation.”

Between the lines: The DOJ's charges followed a 2019 settlement between Facebook and the ACLU over the same discriminatory allegations.

  • At the time, Facebook said it would take steps to prevent advertisers from engaging in discriminatory ad targeting by ensuring advertisers understood the policies, setting up an archive for housing ads and continuing to educate advertisers.

The other side: Meta denies liability and wrongdoing in the DOJ settlement.

  • In a blog post, Roy Austin Jr, Meta vice president of civil rights and deputy general counsel, wrote the company will stop using the Special Ad Audience tool for employment and credit ads, in addition to housing ads.
  • Austin said the new housing ad delivery system required by the settlement will also be used for employment and credit ads.
  • "We will be introducing a new method designed to make sure the audience that ends up seeing a housing ad more closely reflects the eligible targeted audience for that ad," Austin said. "It will focus on a few key demographics: age, gender and estimated race or ethnicity. "
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