Meta changes Facebook tech in deal with DOJ to prevent discriminatory housing ads

Facebook agreed to stop using a digital advertising tool and change its algorithms in order to settle a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department that alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act.

Justice Department officials said the U.S. government reached a settlement with Facebook’s parent company Meta to resolve the lawsuit the government filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The lawsuit alleged that Meta’s housing ads system discriminated against people on Facebook on the basis of race, religion, sex and disability, among other things.

“This settlement is historic, marking the first time that Meta has agreed to terminate one of its algorithmic targeting tools and modify its delivery algorithms for housing ads in response to a civil rights lawsuit,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement. “The Justice Department is committed to holding Meta and other technology companies accountable when they abuse algorithms in ways that unlawfully harm marginalized communities.”

Meta must pay a civil penalty of $115,054, per the Justice Department.

Roy L. Austin Jr., Meta’s vice president and deputy general counsel, said the company has worked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for more than a year to “develop a novel use of machine learning technology” that ensures a housing ad’s overall audience matches a mixed population eligible to see the ad.

“While HUD raised concerns about personalized housing ads specifically, we also plan to use this method for ads related to employment and credit,” Mr. Austin wrote on the company’s blog. “Discrimination in housing, employment and credit is a deep-rooted problem with a long history in the U.S., and we are committed to broadening opportunities for marginalized communities in these spaces and others.”

Meta’s new system to address allegations of racial and other disparities in its ad delivery system caused by personalization algorithms will be developed in the next six months, according to the Justice Department.

“If the United States concludes that the new system adequately addresses the discriminatory delivery of housing ads, then Meta will implement the system, which will be subject to Department of Justice approval and court oversight,” the Justice Department said Tuesday. “If the United States concludes that the new system is insufficient to address algorithmic discrimination in the delivery of housing ads, then the settlement agreement will be terminated.”

The Justice Department noted that the settlement agreement makes Meta’s ad targeting and delivery system subject to judicial oversight for the first time.

Congress has also considered expanding the federal government’s oversight in reviewing large technology company’s algorithms. Last year, Sens. Chris Coons, Delaware Democrat; Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat; and Rob Portman, Ohio Republican; said they were working on a bill to require the disclosure of certain information by social media companies to researchers and the public.

Facebook is not the only social platform that has settled with the federal government over allegations involving its ads system. The Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission ordered Twitter to pay $150 million in civil penalties last month over data privacy violations stemming from information gathered by Twitter and used by companies to send targeted ads.

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