April 14, 2019 | Townhall
ACRU Policy Board member and senior fellow Ken Blackwell
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), under the direction of Dr. Ben Carson, is taking aggressive legal action against social media platforms for enabling online housing discrimination. Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing flawed legislation that would only increase the power and influence of their Big Tech allies.
The contrast highlights just how beholden Democrats have become to support Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook and Google.
Last August, HUD launched a Fair Housing Act complaint against Facebook based on its advertising practices. Facebook is the world’s largest social media company and, together with Google, forms the great internet duopoly that controls the majority of online advertising.
The key product that Facebook offers advertisers is user data. Through its Facebook and Instagram platforms, the company’s algorithms collect data that allows advertisers to target customers with incredible degrees of specificity.
When it comes to housing, this presents a serious legal problem, because it gives landlords and developers a powerful array of tools to ensure that only the “right kind” of people see their ads for, say, a new apartment building or real estate development.
The law has something to say about that, because many of the “interests” that Facebook lets its advertisers target are very close proxies for federally protected classes such as race, religion, and family status.
Don’t want families with kids? Just exclude Facebook users with “interests” in baby clothes or parenting tips. Don’t want Christians? Uncheck the boxes about Bible verses and church.
Worst of all, Facebook’s current system effectively lets landlords engage in digital “redlining,” making sure their solicitations don’t go to people from the “wrong neighborhoods,” even down to the specific block.
Exploiting this and other close proxies for race are the essence of what the Fair Housing Act is in place to prevent. Facebook has a responsibility to make sure its tools aren’t used that way, but it’s essentially been doing the exact opposite by promising landlords that its advertising services will help them find “the perfect homeowners.”
So, at the conclusion of HUD’s investigation late last month, Secretary Carson announced that he is moving forward with a formal charge of discrimination against Facebook. Fellow tech giants Google and Twitter are reportedly in his sights, as well.
Democrats have historically been at the forefront of the fight against housing discrimination, which is why it’s so discouraging to see that instead of rallying behind Secretary Carson’s laudable efforts, some on the left are more interested in using their political capital to conflate the Facebook discrimination issue with “net neutrality,” a defunct Obama administration FCC policy that has nothing to do with housing discrimination.
“Net neutrality” regulates the pricing schemes of internet service providers (ISPs), which would greatly benefit Facebook and the other Silicon Valley firms being investigated for facilitating discrimination. In fact, net neutrality is what the Big Tech companies want more than anything from the Democratic politicians whose campaigns they fund.
Democrat presidential hopeful Cory Booker did appear to take Secretary Carson’s action seriously, tweeting that “Social media giants like Facebook (the largest advertising platform in the nation) can NOT be allowed to encourage & enable discrimination on their platforms,” and calling for new legislation to address the issue.
Like other Democrats though, Booker—who has taken tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from both Facebook and Google parent Alphabet—is just running interference for Big Tech.
After throwing his weight behind Nancy Pelosi’s attempt to legislatively resurrect net neutrality—which is utterly irrelevant to housing discrimination—Booker unveiled a pie-in-the-sky bill based on the concept of racist algorithms that has been championed by freshman democratic-socialist Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The bill has no chance of becoming law, but if it did, all it would do is cement Google and Facebook’s online advertising duopoly, because those enormous companies would be the only ones able to afford the compliance costs of having all their code pre-cleared as “not racist” by the Federal Trade Commission, as the bill demands.
It’s become impossible to consider Democrats’ actions on the issues of tech and discrimination without reference to their increasingly cozy relationship with Silicon Valley. If Democrats were truly concerned about stopping online housing discrimination, they’d be enthusiastically supporting Dr. Carson’s legal action against the firms that are enabling it. Instead, they’re just using it as an excuse to advance the interests of their Big Tech donors.