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Meta to alter algorithm for housing ads in the US to avoid a lawsuit

Meta to alter algorithm for housing ads in the US to avoid a lawsuit
Photo Credit: Pixabay
22 Jun, 2022
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Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook) has reached a settlement agreement with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) in a lawsuit on discriminatory advertising filed in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York on June 21. 

As part of the settlement with the DOJ, Meta will stop using its advertising tool for housing ads and will develop a new system to address racial and other forms of discrimination triggered by the use of personalisation algorithms in its ad system.  

The lawsuit alleges that Meta uses algorithms to decide which Facebook users will be shown housing ads and these algorithms choose the ads based on certain characteristics that are protected under the Fair Housing Act (FHA).  

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“Meta’s housing advertising system discriminates against Facebook users based on their race, colour, religion, sex, disability, familial status, and national origin,” the lawsuit claims.  

The new ad system that Meta has to develop will require approval from the DOJ and will be supervised by the court.  

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“As technology rapidly evolves, companies like Meta have a responsibility to ensure their algorithmic tools are not used in a discriminatory manner,” said Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. 

Clarke warned that the Justice Department will hold Meta and other technology companies accountable when they abuse algorithms in ways that “unlawfully harm” marginalised communities. 

According to the lawsuit, Meta is using an ad-targeting tool called “Lookalike Audience” or “Special Ad Audience” that uses a machine learning (ML) algorithm to find Facebook users who “look like” an advertiser’s source audience. Facebook users who matched the source audience were shown the housing ads.  

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To find these Facebook users, the algorithm used FHA-protected characteristics such as race, religion, and sex. This allegedly deprived many users of housing opportunities as they were only shown ads based on their protected characteristics.  

Damian Williams, a US attorney for the Southern District of New York, pointed out that Meta will change its ad delivery system to address algorithmic discrimination. If it fails to demonstrate that it has sufficiently changed its delivery system to guard against algorithmic bias, his office will proceed with the litigation. 

Algorithmic bias has been flagged as a major concern by regulators and rights experts. New rules have been proposed in some regions to make big tech companies and their algorithms more accountable.  

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In April, the European Parliament reached an agreement on the Digital Services Act (DSA), which will set new standards to create a “safer and more open” digital space. According to the proposal of the DSA, the European Commission and its member states can seek access to the algorithms of large online platforms.