HUD accuses Facebook of housing discrimination


facebook-dislike-thumb.jpgThe U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced last week that it has filed a civil complaint against Facebook, Inc. alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act as a result of Facebook’s ad-targeting system. Twitter, Inc. and Google have been notified that their similar practices are under scrutiny.

Facebook’s ad-targeting system allows advertisers the ability to direct messages to target audiences with precision.  HUD charges this system has allowed real estate companies to unlawfully discriminate on the basis of race, nationality, religion, color familial status, sex and disability.

The complaint alleges Facebook is guilty of “encouraging, enabling and causing” unlawful discrimination when it allows advertisers to exclude users by certain characteristics, for example, whether they are interested in Hispanic culture and food, whether they are parents and whether they are non-citizens or non-Christians. Some ads are only shown to women. Other ads may exclude neighborhoods or geographic areas like ZIP codes. Secretary of HUD Ben Carson said using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in that person’s face.

HUD alleges Facebook mines users’ extensive personal data and uses characteristics protected by law to determine who can view housing ads.

This is not the first time Facebook has been in trouble for ad-targeting. An earlier investigation by ProPublica found the advertising practices acted to exclude African American, Latinos and Asian Americans. HUD had filed an earlier complaint last August alleging ethnic groups were excluded from viewing some ads. Facebook took action by removing 5,000 ad target options.

The ACLU was not happy with that result and filed a lawsuit. That lawsuit was settled recently with Facebook announcing substantial changes to its platform including withholding a wide array of demographic information often used as indicators of race. Facebook also agreed to create a tool that would allow users to search for housing ads whether or not the ads could be viewed in individual news feeds.

HUD was apparently dissatisfied with the settlement as not going far enough to remedy housing discrimination and responded with the current complaint.

Creative Use of Google AdWords Gets SC Lawyer in Hot Water


Supreme Court is not amused by timeshare attorney’s advertising technique

yellow card - suitThe South Carolina Supreme Court handed down a public reprimand last year against a Hilton Head lawyer for his resourceful use of Google AdWords.*

According to the Court, Google AdWords is an Internet marketing technique in which the advertiser places bids for “keywords”. When a Google search includes the advertiser’s keywords, the search results list may or may not include the advertiser’s ad. The advertiser pays Google for clicks on the ad from the search results.

The lawyer and his partner (the “law firm”) handled timeshare litigation and had filed numerous lawsuits against a particular timeshare company. The law firm bid on key words including the timeshare company’s name and the names of three lawyers who represented that company. The law firm’s ad appeared in some Internet search results when those names were used. The ad read:

“Timeshare Attorney in SC – Ripped off? Lied to? Scammed” Hilton Head Island, SC Free Consult”

Sometimes the law firm’s ad appeared as the first result and other times, it appeared later in the list. The law firm paid for its advertisement each time an Internet searcher clicked on the firm’s ad.

The Court held that the attorney violated the Lawyer’s Civility Oath by using the names of opposing parties and their counsel in this manner. By taking the oath, a lawyer pledges to opposing parties and their counsel fairness, integrity, and civility in all written communications and to employ only such means consistent with trust, honor and principles of professionalism.

Marketing is now virtually a necessity for successful lawyers. Attorneys are exploring many avenues in their marketing efforts, including numerous Internet marketing techniques. But, beware, this one is not a good idea!


*In the Matter of Naert, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion No. 27574, September 30, 2015.