DOJ Sides With San Antonio Group In Discrimination Lawsuit Against Facebook

Aug 18, 2018

The Department of Justice gave a San Antonio housing group legal ammunition Friday afternoon in their discrimination lawsuit against Facebook.

The lawsuit, which was filed March, alleges Facebook knowingly allowed people to discriminate against protected groups like Spanish speakers, the disabled, renters with children and women by allowing targeted ads, so-called boosts and they allow proprietary algorithms meant to exclude them.

A screenshot of a current housing post on Facebook.
Credit Facebook

The DOJ said in a court filing Friday that they agreed with plaintiffs in the case, including the Fair Housing Council of Greater San Antonio, that Facebook is not immune from a housing discrimination lawsuit under the Communications Decency Act.

Facebook had filed a motion to dismiss the case arguing that they are an interactive computer service. The DOJ called the rational “faulty,” agreeing with the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs “sufficiently” alleged Facebook’s work in housing advertisements, and the tools they’ve built for ads made them something more, a content provider.

“Facebook’s motion should, therefore, be denied,” said the document.

The statement of interest also says HUD served an administrative complaint against Facebook Aug. 14 “for conduct similar to that alleged” by the plaintiffs.

This means that HUD has opened an investigation into Facebook’s practices, and according to HUD’s website a hearing before an administrative judge may occur.

Taken together, the two items are very positive for the fair housing advocates.

“It’s a good day for those plaintiffs,” said Glenn Grossenbacher, a San Antonio attorney who has sued on behalf of the government multiple times.

In addition to quashing the motion to dismiss, Grossenbacher said the government actions take away a powerful argument from facebook.

“Basically, they can no longer say ‘If this is such a big deal, why isn’t the government doing something about it?’ ” said Grossenbacher, “Because now they have.”

He said the statement of interest signals that the DOJ may move to intervene in the case later on, potentially becoming a co-plaintiff.

Facebook also motioned to dismiss the complaint about a lack of standing and to transfer the venue from New York to California. The DOJ didn't address the two items.

There is no place for discrimination on Facebook,” wrote a spokesperson “Over the past year we’ve strengthened our systems to further protect against misuse.”

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From Texas Public Radio 

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive