STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Facebook says that it wants to make it harder for advertisers to use Facebook as a tool for discrimination. But whatever it's trying was apparently too little for the Department of Housing and Urban Development because HUD says it is charging Facebook with violating the Fair Housing Act over the way that it allowed advertisers to target and exclude some users. We should note before going on that Facebook is one of NPR's financial supporters. We are nevertheless reporting independently on it, and NPR's Brakkton Booker is here. Brakkton, good morning.
BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: According to HUD, how does Facebook discriminate?
BOOKER: Well, as you said in the intro there, HUD is saying that Facebook violated the Fair Housing Act. And that, of course, is a federal protection that was established in 1968. It protects homebuyers and renters from being discriminated against on the basis of race and religion and other protected classes. Now, HUD is saying that Facebook is - allows advertisers to shield who can see which ads appear on their platform on the basis of race.
INSKEEP: Do you mean that if an advertiser only wanted white people to see an apartment ad - just to give a hypothetical - that Facebook would allow that to happen?
BOOKER: Yes, there are certain things that advertisers can click on the platform that allow certain people to see. So if they are - if a Facebook user kind of identifies as a African-American dog-lover and Facebook only wants to appear to, say, an Anglo cat-lover, they can select different things on the platform that allows - that shields certain people from seeing certain ads on their platform.
INSKEEP: On the most basic level, I'm genuinely curious how Facebook is convinced it knows the race of people because, of course, the platform asks for your name, asks for your phone number, asks for your birthday, a lot of other things. I don't know if they directly ask for race, but they must get it from somewhere.
BOOKER: Well, HUD is saying in their charging document that Facebook mined extensive data about users and uses that data to determine which users can see housing-related ads. So in theory, because of things that you like and things that you share, there are some kind of algorithms that allow advertisers and Facebook to know kind of who these people are.
INSKEEP: One of the reasons that this feels meaningful to me, Brakkton, is that I've done a lot of reporting on discriminatory housing or some reporting on discriminatory housing in the past and spoke with real estate brokers around Chicago who described the process of racial steering. Like, who do you show a house to? Who do you hint to about whether they should or shouldn't live in a particular neighborhood? It can be very subtle, but very powerful in segregating neighborhoods. You're telling me that is exactly what Facebook did, according to HUD.
BOOKER: Well, it's really the advertiser. So it's the advertiser's...
INSKEEP: Facebook allowed...
BOOKER: Allow - allows advertisers - when they want to create an ad, when they're trying to look for the perfect tenant or the perfect homebuyer, they can start to select certain characteristics to make sure that, you know, the people that are seeing these ads are kind of the target audience that they want.
INSKEEP: And the excluded person doesn't even know they're being excluded.
BOOKER: They don't know. They don't know.
INSKEEP: They don't see the ad. They never see the availability. What has Facebook been saying about these accusations, which I think have been out for a little while?
BOOKER: Yes, so this comes on the heels of what Facebook and some housing advocates say was a historic settlement that happened last week. Facebook said they were going to do better, and they were going to make changes to the platform to not allow advertisers to selective - to...
INSKEEP: Selectively - yeah.
BOOKER: ...Selectively put out their ads. So they said they were making changes. They vowed to do better, and they said these changes are going to come about later on this year.
INSKEEP: And now HUD's coming after them. Brakkton, thanks so much - really appreciate it.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Brakkton Booker.