A federal appeals court on Friday reinstated a lawsuit accusing Facebook Inc. of discriminating against minorities, the disabled and others in its housing ads, in a split opinion.
The plaintiffs charged that because of Facebook’s targeting practices, women of color, single parents, people with disabilities and others with protected characteristics were prevented from having the same opportunity to see housing ads as others who did not belong to a protected class, according to the ruling by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco i Rosemarie Vargas, et al. and Neuhtah Opiotennione; Jessica Tsai v. Facebook Inc.
As an example, the ruling said that when Vargas, a disabled Hispanic woman who is a single parent living in New York City, went to Facebook Marketplace to search for housing in Manhattan, she found no ads, but a Caucasian friend who used same criteria received more ads to prefer housing.
In dismissing the complaint, the 2-1appellate panel’s opinion said the US District Court in San Francisco “faulted the complaint for failing to identify specific ads” that Vargas did not see.
“But the plaintiff’s very claim is that Facebook’s practices hidden information from housing applicants in protected classes. And nothing in the case law requires a plaintiff to identify specific ads she could not see when she alleges that an ad delivery algorithm limited her access to housing ads in the first place.”
The ruling said the district court wrongly held that Facebook has immunity from liability as a provider or user of an interactive computer service.
The plaintiffs “challenge Facebook’s conduct as a co-developer of content and not merely as a publisher of information provided by another information content provider,” it said.
The dissenting opinion said, “to survive a motion to dismiss plaintiffs would have had to identify an ad that would otherwise have appeared that did not because the platform excluded their protected class.”
Plaintiff attorney Gerald V. Mantese of Mantese Honigman PC in Troy, Michigan, said in a statement: “We are pleased with the verdict and agree that Facebook is not just a message board that posts the discriminatory housing ads of others. In fact, it created the discriminatory platform and then delivered the discriminating selections.”
Facebook’s lawyers did not respond to a request for comment.