Clay and Sherman Lead Group of Senior House Democrats in Letter to Facebook Raising Concerns of Discriminatory Ad Targeting
Washington, D.C. – Today, Congressman Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who is Chairman of the Subcommittee on Investor Protection, Entrepreneurship, and Capital Markets, joined Housing, Community Development, and Insurance Subcommittee Chairman Wm. Lacy Clay (D-MO) in sending a letter to Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, to raise concerns and important questions regarding practices by Facebook related to discriminatory ad targeting and digital redlining. Congressmen Clay was also joined in sending this letter by Congresswoman Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY), Congressman Stephen F. Lynch, Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), Congressman Bill Foster (D-IL), Congressman Al Green (D-TX) and Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ).
The Facebook advertising platform allows advertisers to direct targeted ads to Facebook users based on users’ preferences and individual characteristics. In recent years, Facebook has received significant criticism, as well as legal challenges, for allowing and facilitating the targeting of advertisements for credit, housing, and employment opportunities in ways that discriminate on the basis of protected characteristics such as race, age, and gender. Among the most significant challenges Facebook has faced regarding discriminatory advertising have been a lawsuit led by the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), as well as charges of Fair Housing Act violations brought by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
In March of 2019, Facebook reached a settlement in the lawsuit brought by NFHA and agreed to take steps to restrict advertisers’ ability to select potentially discriminatory criteria when targeting ads for credit, housing, and employment opportunities. While Facebook appears to have made improvements in this area, its overall mechanism for delivering ads to users still contains significant potential for harm. The Facebook algorithm used to determine final delivery of ads has been shown to produce discriminatory outcomes independent of ad targeting criteria selected by advertisers. In its charge against Facebook, HUD specifically highlights that “even if an advertiser tries to target an audience that broadly spans protected class groups, (Facebook)’s ad delivery system will not show the ad to a diverse audience if the system considers users with particular characteristics most likely to engage with the ad.”
In light of these outstanding concerns, this letter requests that Facebook provide detailed information to facilitate a better understanding of the ways in which its advertising platform may be producing discriminatory outcomes. Among the requests made in this letter are statements of compliance with fair lending and fair housing laws, details of steps Facebook has taken to address concerns with its algorithm, and the types of user data used in determining delivery of ads for credit and housing-related products and services.
“In sending this letter, we are not only demanding answers from Mark Zuckerberg but also reminding Facebook that equal access to credit, housing, and other economic opportunities are among the most important protections achieved during the hard fought civil rights movement,” said Congressman Sherman. “While biases in algorithms and artificial intelligence may present new and unique challenges, these protections help make up the bedrock of equality in the United States and cannot be ignored.”
See the full letter here.