Opinion

Trump Administration Takes Surprising Step Against Facebook to Combat Discrimination

Amazing. The agency led by neurosurgeon Ben Carson just decided to protect minorities from exactly the kind of discrimination Donald Trump himself was once accused of perpetrating. There’s a victory for justice I didn’t see coming.

On Friday. Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Anna María Farías joined a lawsuit filed by the Southern District of New York against Facebook for policies that allegedly discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability. In all likelihood, the impetus for Administration’s filing had more to do with Trump’s hatred of Facebook than it did with any crusade against discrimination. After all, this can’t be just coincidence:

Still, though, the HUD lawsuit appears to be a solid claim with fairness at its core. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing transactions as well as advertising against those in protected categories. By contrast, HUD alleges that Facebook allows advertisers to target potential buyers or tenants while filtering out less desirable candidates. According to HUD’s press release, Facebook’s platform enables advertisers to exclude housing ads from one gender, certain religious or ethnic groups, or those in certain zip codes. It also allows advertisers to filter out users who have posted using phrases like, “assistance dog,” “mobility scooter,” “accessibility,” “deaf culture,” “childcare,” or “parenting.”

“When Facebook uses the vast amount of personal data it collects to help advertisers to discriminate, it’s the same as slamming the door in someone’s face,” said Assistant Secretary Farías.

Facebook responded to the allegation with a statement insisting that “there is no place for discrimination on Facebook; it’s strictly prohibited in our policies. Over the past year we’ve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse … and we’ll continue working directly with HUD to address their concerns.”

Allegations that Facebook allows housing advertisers to illegally discriminate are nothing new; in 2016, ProPublica revealed that that it had purchased Facebook ads targeting whites-only.   Officially, Facebook has always had an anti-discrimination policy that complies with Fair Housing Act standards. Since the ProPublica story broke, Facebook has repeatedly vowed to tighten its standards to comply with legal requirements.

Trump v. Zuckerberg aside, it’s equally satisfying and shocking to see Fair Housing violations become the vehicle by which the Trump Administration delivers justice, given that Trump himself has had a long history with exactly these violations.

In 1973, the DOJ sued Trump and his family for widespread discrimination against racial minorities who had been seeking apartments. The case, which utilized undercover investigators posing as potential tenants for the 14,000 apartments owned by Trump, was unprecedented in scope. The litigation was high-profile, high-stakes, and high-cost; after 20 months in court, Trump and the DOJ eventually settled the case, arriving at a consent decree which (among other things) required the Trumps to run newspaper ads informing minorities they had an equal opportunity to seek housing at their properties. Despite Trump’s downplaying of the whole thing while on the campaign trail, the Trump Fair Housing litigation was a big deal, and Trump certainly remembers it.

Perhaps because of his own experience, Trump may very well perceive HUD lawsuits as wielding insurmountable power worthy of Facebook’s considerable might. Or maybe it’s more of a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” kind of thing. Either way, score one for equality.

[Image via Paul Marotta/Getty Images]

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. She is a frequent media contributor, and is Of Counsel to Smedley & Lis, in Woodbury, New Jersey. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos

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