HUD investigating Twitter, Google ad practices for discrimination: report

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) told Twitter and Google last year that they are under investigation for allegedly enabling discriminatory ad practices, according to The Washington Post.

A source familiar with the agency's actions told the Post that HUD's investigations into Twitter and Google are ongoing.

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"They want to make sure that other companies aren’t getting away with something that one company is investigated for,” a source familiar with the probes told the Post.

The revelation comes hours after HUD charged Facebook with encouraging and enabling housing discrimination through its targeted advertising practices. 

Civil rights groups have called for investigations into tech companies' ad targeting after ProPublica reported in 2016 that Facebook was allowing advertisers to exclude certain users based on "ethnic affinity," which critics have argued is used as a proxy for race and ethnicity.

Facebook on Thursday said it was "surprised" by HUD's decision to bring charges against the company. Negotiations between HUD and Facebook apparently broke down when the agency requested "access to sensitive information — like user data — without adequate safeguards," the company said.

"We're disappointed by today’s developments, but we’ll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues," a Facebook spokesperson said.

Facebook also noted that HUD had not yet addressed the other digital advertising platforms that offer advertisers the option to target users by on age, gender and ZIP code. 

A spokesperson for Google said the company had existing policies barring targeted ads based on "sensitive categories," including race.

“We’ve had policies in place for many years that prohibit targeting ads on the basis of sensitive categories like race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, disability status, negative financial standing, etc," a Google spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill. "Our policies are designed to protect users and ensure that advertisers are using our platforms in a responsible manner.”

A Twitter spokesperson told The Hill that the company prohibits targeted advertising based on racial or ethnic origin, religion, negative financial condition and any potential criminal background.

"Twitter doesn't allow discriminatory advertising on our platform," the spokesperson said. "Someone using Twitter to advertise agrees to comply with the law and not use our services for illegal activities. Discrimination in housing and employment is against the law and against our rules."

"We enforce our policies rigorously," the spokesperson added.
 
Google and Twitter did not respond to questions about whether HUD notified them last year about an investigation.
 
According to HUD's charges Thursday, Facebook allowed advertises to exclude people from seeing housing advertisements based on interests that "closely align with the Fair Housing Act’s protected classes," including users who Facebook classified as non-American-born, non-Christian, interested in accessibility or who were interested in Hispanic culture, in addition to other groups.
 
HUD claims that Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude people based on their neighborhood "by drawing a red line around those neighborhoods on a map."
 
Finally, HUD asserts that Facebook's machine learning and artificial intelligence tools "classify and group users to project each user's likely response to a given ad," potentially creating groupings around ethnic, gender and racial lines. HUD is charging that Facebook's AI tools target protected classes even when advertisers do not choose to do so.
 
Facebook earlier this month agreed to enact sweeping reforms to its ad-targeting system as part of a settlement with civil rights groups that made similar complaints. The groups, including one dedicated to housing, alleged that the tech giant allowed advertisers to discriminate.
 
As part of that settlement, Facebook will no longer allow advertisers to target or exclude housing ads by age, gender or ZIP code. It also removed hundreds of targeting options for anyone advertising housing, credit or employment opportunities.
 
Advertisers promoting housing, credit or employment opportunities will now be held to much stricter standards and have access to far fewer targeting options, according to the settlement.
 
Facebook has also pledged to create a new portal to allow users to search for and view housing ads in the U.S. regardless of who the advertisers hoped to target.
 
Google and Twitter have not come to similar settlements or faced similar pushback over their housing ad targeting practices.
 
 
Updated at 3:59 p.m.