The federal government charged Facebook with high-tech housing discrimination Thursday for allegedly allowing landlords and real estate brokers to systematically exclude groups such as non-Christians, immigrants and minorities from seeing ads for houses and apartments.
The civil charges filed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development could cost the social network millions of dollars in penalties. But more than that, they strike at the heart of Facebook’s business model—its ability to deliver ads with surgical precision to certain groups of people and not others.
“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”
In a statement, Facebook expressed surprise over the charges, saying it has been working with HUD to address its concerns and has taken steps to prevent discrimination, including eliminating thousands of ad-targeting options last year that could be misused by advertisers.
Just last week, Facebook agreed to overhaul its targeting system and abandon some of the practices singled out by HUD to prevent discrimination, not just in housing listings but in credit and employment ads, as well. The move was part of a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union and other activists.
“We’re disappointed by today’s developments, but we’ll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues,” the company said.
The HUD charges were seen as a possible prelude to a wider regulatory crackdown on the digital advertising industry, which is dominated by Facebook and Google. And the case was yet another blow to Facebook, which has come under siege from lawmakers, regulators and activists and is under investigation in the U.S. and Europe over its data and privacy practices.
HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said the agency has reached out to Google and Twitter to “better understand their advertising practices.” But he said neither is currently under investigation. Twitter says it doesn’t allow discriminatory advertising, while Google says its policies prohibit targeting ads based on sensitive categories such as race, ethnicity and religious beliefs.
Google, in particular, has ad-targeting options similar to Facebook’s.
The technology at the center of the clash with HUD has helped make Facebook rich, with annual revenue of close to $56 billion. Facebook gathers enormous amounts of data on what users read and like and who their friends are, and it uses that information to help advertisers and others direct their messages to exactly the crowd they want to reach.
HUD said Facebook is allowing advertisers to practice a sort of high-tech form of red-lining by excluding people in entire neighborhoods or ZIP codes from seeing their ads. The company was accused, too, of giving advertisers the option of showing ads only to men or only to women.
Facebook also allegedly allowed advertisers to exclude parents; those who are non-American-born; non-Christians; and those interested in Hispanic culture, “deaf culture,” accessibility for the disabled, countries like Honduras or Somalia, or a variety of other topics.
The case will be heard by an administration law judge unless HUD or Facebook decides to move it to federal court.
“The nature of their business model is advertising and targeted advertising, so that is a slippery slope. That is their business model,” said Dan Ives, an industry analyst with Wedbush Securities. “The government launched this missile and caught many in the industry by surprise.”
Ives said the move could mean U.S. regulators are taking broader aim at the digital advertising market.
“This is a clear shot across the bow for Facebook and others,” he said.
Galen Sherwin of the ACLU likewise warned: “All the online platforms should be paying close attention to these lawsuits and taking a hard look at their own advertising platforms.”
Facebook is already under fire for allowing fake Russian accounts to buy ads targeting U.S. users and sow political discord during the 2016 presidential election. The company has also been criticized for allowing organizations to target groups of people identified as “Jew-haters” and Nazi sympathizers.
HUD brought an initial complaint against Facebook in August. Facebook said in its statement that it was “eager to find a solution” but that HUD “insisted on access to sensitive information—like user data—without adequate safeguards.”
In its settlement with the ACLU and others, Facebook said it will no longer allow housing, employment or credit ads that target people by age, gender or ZIP code. It said it will also limit other targeting options so ads don’t exclude people on the basis of race, ethnicity and other legally protected categories, including sexual orientation.
“Unless and until HUD can verify that there is an end of the discriminatory practices, we still have a responsibility to the American people,” said Raffi Williams, deputy assistant HUD secretary.
William Eugene Clouse
Mary Catherine Matuska
Richard “Dick” Jass
To Deedee Morrison, Janesville’s downtown exudes vibes of Albany, Oregon.
The similar-size West Coast city has received public and private dollars to revitalize its downtown and emphasize the Willamette River as an asset and gathering space.
Morrison, a Greenville, South Carolina, artist, has worked on projects in Albany and has seen how public art can transform a city.
“It (public art) can be a real driver for economic development. It can sort of be a focal point for people to say, ‘Here’s this piece that either led the process or is the fulcrum of the process,’” she said. “It can be the tie that binds.”
Morrison was one of three artist teams in Janesville on Thursday taking tours of the ARISE Town Square. They have been selected as finalists to design a wall honoring donors who contributed more than $10,000 to various ARISEnow projects.
The mini tours allowed each artist to see the town square and visualize how they could incorporate their wall designs into the space.
Many cities are putting a greater emphasis on public art. Some places buy artwork not specifically designed for their city, or they work with an artist who has never visited the city.
Morrison lauded the ARISEnow team, a public-private downtown renaissance group, for bringing the artists in for a visit. The strongest public artworks come from artists who understand a community, she said.
Stefanie O’Keefe of CODAworx, a liaison company facilitating communication between ARISEnow and the artists, said these relationships between Janesville and the artists are important. Only one artist will design the wall, but the rest could help design other planned ARISEnow art projects.
JoLynn Burden, ARISEnow’s development and community engagement director, wrote in an email to The Gazette that art will be integrated into the pedestrian bridge spanning the Rock River. Sculptures will stand at each end of the bridge to block traffic. A future riverwalk south of Court Street on the river’s eastern shore also will have artwork.
ARISEnow already unveiled one major artwork last year when the interactive fountain opened.
Artist Ed Manner said the fountain’s steel design and other steel objects at the town square give the area a strong brand. Manner and his sister Anne Manner-McLarty are finalists for the donor wall design.
Manner-McLarty, of Asheville, North Carolina, said the Rock River is “bigger and more beautiful” than she was expecting, giving the town square a natural feel.
For the third finalist, Bonnie Rubinstein of River Falls, the river is a key downtown amenity that is already becoming a gathering space. She saw kids playing at the interactive fountain Wednesday night.
The Rock River is where Janesville began. As new industry dominated the area, the city downplayed its connection to the river and lost that relationship, Rubinstein said.
But now the river is becoming a focal point of downtown. The pedestrian bridge will connect both shores, and new bridges on Milwaukee and Court streets will improve the area’s infrastructure, she said.
Rubinstein is “very impressed” with and could feel the energy behind Janesville’s downtown revitalization. The river was central to that momentum.
“It’s a moving, fluid amenity, and it’s natural,” she said. “People are very drawn to nature and the beauty of a river.”
Tears came to Joan Rossiter’s eyes as she saw a turquoise stone emerge from the dirt.
It had been 10 years since she last saw her ring.
Rossiter, 83, of Janesville has loved the aesthetic of turquoise and silver since she was a little girl. That’s why the oblong turquoise stone set on a silver band caught her eye as she walked past Dewey and Bandt Jewelers in downtown Janesville in 1953, she said.
She bought the ring for about $5 and made weekly payments of 50 cents to pay it off.
The ring stayed on Rossiter’s finger every day for decades. She wore it the day she met her husband, on her wedding day, while raising five children, through the loss of her 5-year-old-son, Stephen, and all the other special moments she experienced.
She called the ring “her whole life.”
About 10 years ago, Rossiter was working in the garden at her Victorian home on St. Lawrence Avenue when she dropped the ring in the dirt. She searched all over her yard but could not find it.
She was heartbroken.
Her fortunes reversed March 17, when Rossiter glanced out her window overlooking the park behind the Rock County Courthouse. She saw a man digging in the dirt and watched him for a while before she realized what he was doing.
He was hunting for metal with a metal detector.
She thought he might be able to find her long-lost ring.
Rossiter approached the man and offered to pay him to come to her house and look for the ring. The man did so without accepting payment, she said.
He ran his detector over the ground where Rossiter thought she had dropped the ring. The machine started beeping, and the beeps increased in volume until they found the spot where the ring had been pushed about 3 inches into the ground, Rossiter said.
They dug and dug until the turquoise stone emerged. Rossiter cried tears of joy.
The band is so bent that it does not fit past Rossiter’s fingertip. She believes the ring was stepped on and likely run over by a lawn mower multiple times. She plans to get it repaired.
The man left before Rossiter could ask his name. She hopes to find the man so she can properly thank him for returning her treasure to her.
She describes the man as being about 40 years old.
“He said, ‘That ring must have been very important to you,’” Rossiter said.
“It was my life.”