The Housing And Urban Development – HUD – department of the US Federal Government is suing Facebook over racist and racial discrimination in housing advertisements. They’re not, of course, stating that Zuckerberg places ads saying No Darkies Here, No Irish. Rather, they’re making the claim that because advertisers have access to a lot of information about the profiles of those they will show ads to, can select along those lines, then the Facebook advertising system allows such racial discrimination in violation of the law.
All of which might even be true but if it is then it’s the law that needs to be changed.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) charged Facebook Inc on Thursday with violating the Fair Housing Act, alleging that the company’s targeted advertising discriminated on the basis of race and color.
Well, no, not quite. That it could allow it, maybe, but not that it does, in itself, discriminate.
HUD says Facebook does so by “encouraging, enabling and causing housing discrimination” when it allows companies that use their platform to improperly shield who can see certain housing ads. In the charging document, HUD accuses Facebook of unlawfully discriminating against people based on race, religion, familial status, disability and other characteristics that closely align with the 1968 Fair House Act’s protected classes.
That’s better but still perilously close to stating that Facebook does this, when it’s the tools of Facebook which allow those so minded to do it.
HUD on Thursday said the social media giant is violating the federal act by “encouraging, enabling, and causing” housing discrimination through its advertising platform.
That’s better. The claims themselves are here:
It is unlawful to make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published, any
notice, statement, or advertisement with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates
any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status,
national origin or disability, or that indicates an intention to make such a distinction.
They’re stretching that definition a bit in their claim but still.
So, you’re not allowed to advertise housing and then say “No Darkies”. Or, indeed, anything like that from the list above. So, you can’t say “No Baptists” despite their being the very worst of the lot. Well, if you sip your whiskey on the porch and you’re renting out the spare room they’d be tiresome at least as they clucked their concern. You’re also not allowed to do it indirectly. By, say, refusing to rent to employees of a certain business which has the effect of blocking people on the grounds of any of those protected characteristics. Say you really, really, didn’t want to rent to Baptists so said that no one who works at the Baptist Bible printing plant in town can rent. Gotcha there.
So, now think of how Facebook’s advertising systems work. They know an awful lot about each individual, us out here on the internet. Not absolutely, but there’s a lot than can be gleaned, whether we’ve a pet, our race, age, gender, sexuality, religion, all can be worked out in general terms. People can then search among those options to see who they’d like to advertise to.
No, this is fine. Certain make up or hair products make perfect sense to advertise on gender or race distinctions. We’d not even worry that they were. Bible commentaries might not do too well among Muslim audiences, the Skull of Cthulhu Drinking Goblet might do better among Satanists than Old Testament types so religion’s fine as a distinction at times.
It’s not even the thought that people might be advertising housing etc with “No Darkies” ads that’s the worry here. We might not know whether someone is a subscriber to Ebony or not, we might not even search using race but we might know that they visit the Ebony website regularly. That’s a useful if imperfect proxy for race. The allegation is, really, that the Facebook system offers so many proxies that can be used to target ads. And by targeting ads only at certain racial, religious etc groups, or by excluding those belonging to others, this is tantamount to racial discrimination.
And Facebook’s tools most certainly do allow that sort of discrimination. That’s rather what they’re for, so that advertisers can discriminate among those they advertise to. Not specifically about these protected characteristics and products, obviously, but in the general sense.
Which is where we get to a certain problem. For that discrimination is obviously a vast increase in economic efficiency across the entire system. And that toolbox is what allows that ability to discriminate. So, we don’t want to get rid of it. But obviously enough, if the tool is there people are going to use it to do what they shouldn’t be doing according to the law.
My answer – one that you’re entirely free to disagree with – is to change that law. Allow such discrimination. As Gary Becker has pointed out, it’s expensive to the person doing the discriminating. If we were in a one company town then I’d argue differently. But we’ve a big enough market with enough suppliers that we can leave it to society itself to sort out. And let’s be honest about it, no one is going to overtly so discriminate, not with the social opprobrium that would bring.
We’ve a real problem here. That Facebook toolbox is immensely useful and economically productive. Sure, we don’t want the discrimination to occur. But if we’re to allow the toolbox to exist then some will indeed so use it. And I’m really very sure that we should allow the existence. Which means we’ll have to put up with the cost of the undesired discrimination.
Other weightings and balances are entirely possible, but do note that’s the problem we’re trying to solve here. How much of that desired economic efficiency do we want to give up in order to gain less of that undesired discrimination? We can differ on what the answer is but it is what needs to be answered.