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Facebook faces hyper-targeted advertising lawsuit

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has lodged a lawsuit against Facebook, challenging the hyper-targeted big data model which has made OTTs billions over the years.

Quoting the Fair Housing Act, the HUD has claimed Facebook is breaking the law by encouraging, enabling, and causing housing discrimination. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing and housing-related services, including online advertisements. Facebook’s advertising platform is said to discriminate individuals based on race, colour, national origin, religion, sex, disability and familial status, violating the Act.

“Even as we confront new technologies, the fair housing laws enacted over half a century ago remain clear – discrimination in housing-related advertising is against the law,” said General Counsel Paul Compton.

“Just because a process to deliver advertising is opaque and complex doesn’t mean that it’s exempts Facebook and others from our scrutiny and the law of the land. Fashioning appropriate remedies and the rules of the road for today’s technology as it impacts housing are a priority for HUD.”

Complaints were originally raised by the HUD last summer, though the two parties have been in discussions to come to some sort of settlement to avoid legal action. Reading between the lines, talks have broken down or the HUD leadership team wants to give the impression it is taking a more hardened stance against the social media segment.

Although it should come as little surprise Facebook is facing a lawsuit considering the ability for Mark Zuckerberg to stumble from one blunder to the next, this one effectively challenges the foundations of the business model. Hyper-targeted advertising is the core not only of Facebook’s business, but numerous other companies which have emerged as the dawn breaks on the blossoming data-sharing economy.

What is worth noting is this is not the first time Facebook has faced such criticisms. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also challenged the social media giant, and earlier this month Facebook stating it was changing the way its advertising platform was set up to prevent abuses with the targeting features.

“One of our top priorities is protecting people from discrimination on Facebook,” said Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “Today, we’re announcing changes in how we manage housing, employment and credit ads on our platform. These changes are the result of historic settlement agreements with leading civil rights organizations and ongoing input from civil rights experts.”

As a result of the clash with the ACLU and other parties, Facebook agreed to remove any gender, age and race-based targeting from housing and employment adverts, creating a one-stop portal instead.

According to the HUD, Facebook allows advertisers to exclude individuals from messaging based on where they live and their societal status. For example, whether someone is a parent or non-American, these categories have been deemed discriminatory. Facebook also allows advertisers to effectively zone off neighbourhoods for campaigns, which is also deemed a violation of the Act. By bringing together data from the digital platform and other insight from non-digital means, HUD is effectively challenging the legitimacy of digital and targeted advertising.

As with other similar cases, the HUD is bringing attention to the light-touch regulatory landscape for the internet economy. While traditional advertising is held accountable by strict rules, the internet operates with relative freedom. This is partly down to the age of mass market media online, it is still comparatively new, and the fact few bureaucrats understand how the data machines work.

What is worth noting is that this is an incredibly narrow focus for the HUD, though should it be successful the same concepts could be applied, and other elements of the Facebook hyper-targeted advertising model could be challenged.

Facebook might be the target here, though many companies will be watching this case with intrigue. Precedent is a powerful tool in the legal and regulatory world, and should the HUD win, the same business model which is being applied elsewhere would be compromised also.


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