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Court: Meta Suable for Ad-Tool Discrimination

Meta (Facebook) gave RE agents the ability to steer ads in ways that violate the Fair Housing Act, but “the users did it” doesn’t fully protect Meta from lawsuits.

WASHINGTON – Facebook can be sued for allegedly discriminating on the basis of race and sex in housing advertisements, in violation of civil-rights laws, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on Friday.

The Ninth Circuit ruled in the case Rosemarie Vargas, et al v. Facebook, Inc. that a lower district court had erred by holding that Facebook is immune from liability pursuant to Section 230 of the Communications Act, which generally indemnifies interactive websites from liability for third-party content.

Facebook created an advertising platform that allowed companies to target advertisements to specific categories of users. Plaintiff Vargas claims that Facebook had excluded her based on her ethnicity from seeing certain real-estate ads. The Ninth Circuit held that she sufficiently alleged that Facebook’s conduct injured her by denying her equal treatment.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision aligns with the arguments made by Free Press, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the National Fair Housing Alliance in an amicus brief. The groups argued that Facebook’s conduct was discriminatory and exacerbated the persisting effects of historic discrimination. All Rise Trial and Appellate served as outside counsel to the organizations for the filing.

The Ninth Circuit’s panel of judges stated that the plaintiff’s allegations in the lawsuit, if proven true, could show that Facebook with its audience-selection tool was a “co-developer” of the discriminatory ads, and wasn’t merely hosting information provided by a third party.

“Discrimination in advertisements for housing, jobs, and other key aspects of American life has a long history, as do civil rights laws curtailing it,” the groups wrote in their amicus brief. “That such discrimination happens on the internet does not make Facebook’s practices different in kind from discriminatory offline conduct that has been found to violate civil rights laws.”

The brief argued that these laws have long proscribed discriminatory advertising that makes it harder for people of color to access economic opportunities.

“When Facebook uses race and other protected characteristics to exclude users from ads for economic opportunities, it is engaging in online segregation,” says David Brody, managing attorney of the Digital Justice Initiative at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Allowing this conduct to continue will open the door for online commerce in this generation to mirror the discrimination and redlining of earlier generations.”

Source: The Free Press

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