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Housing ads allow bias, Facebook is told in suit

[NEW YORK] Fair housing groups filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday saying that Facebook continues to discriminate against certain groups, including women, disabled veterans and single mothers, in the way that it allows advertisers to target the audience for their ads. The suit comes as the social network is scrambling to deal with an international crisis over the misuse of data belonging to 50 million of its users.

Facebook, with more than 2 billion users a month, provides advertisers with the ability to customize their messages and target who sees them by selecting from preset lists of demographics, likes, behaviors and interests, while excluding others.

Pet food companies, for example, could send their ads specifically to people who had indicated an interest in dogs, while excluding cat and bird fanciers.

Facebook, in response to criticism over the past 17 months, has repeatedly promised that it would crack down on advertisers who use those tools to show housing or employment ads to whites only.

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But in the lawsuit filed Tuesday in US District Court in Manhattan, the National Fair Housing Alliance and affiliates in New York, San Antonio and Miami contend that Facebook's advertising platform "continues to enable landlords and real estate brokers to bar families with children, women and others from receiving rental and sales ads for housing." "We want the court to order Facebook to develop a plan to remove any ability for advertisers to access Facebook's checklists for excluding groups of people in the posting of housing-related ads," said Diane L. Houk, a lawyer for of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady.

"Because of Facebook's impact on the housing market, we'll ask the court to implement a plan of community education and outreach to housing providers to inform them of their obligation not to discriminate." The suit says Facebook is in violation of the Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal to publish housing ads that indicate preferences or limitations based on race color, religion, handicaps, familial status or national origin.

"There is absolutely no place for discrimination on Facebook," a company spokesperson said. "We believe this lawsuit is without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously."

NYT