Technology giant Meta has entered settlement agreement with the US Department of Justice following allegations of discriminatory housing ads on the social media platform formerly known as Facebook.

Federal prosecutors have filed a complaint against Meta, accusing them of using targeted home ads, using demographic data protected by the Fair Housing Act, in the company’s machine learning algorithms, thus violating housing laws.

The complaint specifically accuses Meta of pairing users with certain home ads based on their Lookalike Audience tool, which uses FHA-protected features in its algorithm. These algorithms then determine which users will receive housing ads and assess which online users are included in its “Eligible Audience”.

This is the first case filed by the Ministry of Justice, which is alleged to be an algorithmic bias under the FHA.

“As technology evolves rapidly, companies like Meta have a responsibility to ensure that their algorithmic tools are not used in a discriminatory manner,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clark of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “This agreement is historic, marking the first time Meta has agreed to discontinue one of its algorithmic targeting tools and change its algorithms for delivering housing advertisements in response to a civil rights case.”

Some of the data allegedly collected and used in a targeted advertising campaign includes race, religion, gender, disability, marital status, and national origin.

Meta’s ad delivery system is said to have used these sensitive features to determine which users are eligible – and not – to see certain home-related ads.

While the Department of Justice complained of discrimination based on this advertising practice, the agency agreed to allow Meta to adjust its ad serving system to include all consumers in fair housing practices, according to the FHA. If Meta does not comply, federal prosecutors will file lawsuits.

“When a company develops and implements technology that deprives consumers of housing opportunities based in whole or in part on protected characteristics, it has violated the Fair Housing Act, just as companies engage in discriminatory advertising using more traditional advertising methods,” said Damien Williams, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the place where the complaint was filed. “Because of this groundbreaking lawsuit, Meta will – for the first time – change its ad serving system to address algorithmic discrimination.

Meta immediately responded to the settlement agreement, saying the company would introduce a new method designed to ensure fair distribution of ads.

“We incorporate into our advertising system a method – referred to in the settlement as a ‘variance reduction system’ – designed to ensure that the audience that ultimately sees the residential advertisement more closely reflects the eligible target audience for that advertisement. company said in a statement.

Meta said it has consulted with advocacy and civil rights organizations to re-evaluate its ad delivery systems. This includes the withdrawal of its special advertising audiences, a tool for advertisers to expand audiences for advertising campaigns related to accommodation opportunities. Some data, such as gender or age, is already banned from use by Meta advertising companies.

Targeted ads were subject to intensive scrutiny in relation to social media companies and how their users’ data is collected and analyzed. Some Capitol Hill lawmakers are strongly seeking to ban targeted advertising, especially with Supervisory Advertising Prohibition Act 2022.

Representative Anna Yeshu, D-Calif., One of the bill’s sponsors, noted that her bill would prevent the use of personal data, such as FHA-protected data, in online advertising campaigns.

“The ‘surveillance advertising’ business model is based on the inappropriate collection and accumulation of personal data in order to enable the targeting of advertisements”, Yeshu said earlier. “This pernicious practice allows online platforms to pursue consumer engagement at a great cost to our society and fuels misinformation, discrimination, voter suppression, privacy abuse and so much more harm.

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