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Why HUD’s lawsuit against Facebook came as a surprise

When did Ben Carson start to care about the Fair Housing Act?

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

In 2016, ProPublica found that Facebook was allowing advertisers to publish discriminatory housing ads, in apparent violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Civil rights groups, the state of Washington, and the federal government all mobilized in protest, leading to various legal skirmishes. And then, less than two weeks ago, it appeared the long-running issue had been resolved: Facebook announced a settlement with the groups suing it, and said it would eliminate additional targeting options that could let people post discriminatory advertisements.

Just when it seemed the advertising discrimination issue was behind us, here comes — Secretary Ben Carson of the Department of Housing and Urban Development?

“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.” [...]

According to the HUD complaint, many of the options for targeting or excluding audiences are shockingly direct, including a map tool that explicitly echoes redlining practices. “[Facebook] has provided a toggle button that enables advertisers to exclude men or women from seeing an ad, a search-box to exclude people who do not speak a specific language from seeing an ad, and a map tool to exclude people who live in a specified area from seeing an ad by drawing a red line around that area,” the complaint reads.

And it isn’t just Facebook. Tracy Jan reports that Google and Twitter are also under scrutiny for their own advertising platforms:

The Department of Housing and Urban Development alerted Twitter and Google last year that it is scrutinizing their practices for possible housing discrimination, a sign that more technology companies could be ensnared in a government probe of their lucrative demographic ad targeting tools, according to three people with direct knowledge of the agency’s actions. [...]

”They want to make sure that other companies aren’t getting away with something that one company is investigated for,” said someone with direct knowledge of HUD’s outreach to other tech companies who is not authorized to discuss the communications.

We are not used to seeing robust regulation of tech companies here in this country, particularly not from HUD, which is currently run by a man who once said that the Affordable Care Act was “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” A year ago, the New York Times found that HUD was scaling back Obama-era enforcement of fair housing laws.

As Katie Benner, Glenn Thrush, and Mike Isaac recount today, HUD has repeatedly changed its mind about whether and how to hold Facebook accountable for discriminatory advertising practices. All of which might leave you asking — why now?

Facebook is asking, too. The company sent me this statement:

We’re surprised by HUD’s decision, as we’ve been working with them to address their concerns and have taken significant steps to prevent ads discrimination. Last year we eliminated thousands of targeting options that could potentially be misused, and just last week we reached historic agreements with the National Fair Housing Alliance, ACLU, and others that change the way housing, credit, and employment ads can be run on Facebook. While we were eager to find a solution, HUD insisted on access to sensitive information — like user data — without adequate safeguards. We’re disappointed by today’s developments, but we’ll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues.”

This statement at least identifies the apparent sticking point: HUD asked for data Facebook didn’t want to give away. I’m inclined to be sympathetic to Facebook on this point — giving away user data is a historic source of grief for the company. In the days to come, I hope we hear more about the data HUD is requesting, and what safeguards Facebook wants to place around it. A world in which Ben Carson has unfettered access to Facebook accounts strikes me as worrisome, even though the issues around housing discrimination are real.

There are meaningful issues to examine here. Housing discrimination has awful consequences, and courts may find that Facebook owes far more in restitution than it has so far provided. And HUD’s charge that Facebook’s algorithms discriminate against people even when advertisers don’t is a fascinating claim, worthy of a full airing in court.

But it also seems notable that the move comes at a time when conservatives are ramping up pressure on big tech platforms, accusing them of anti-Republican bias ahead of the 2020 election. Given the strange timing — the two sides were in settlement negotiations when the suit was filed — it’s fair to ask whether there isn’t a broader political motive at play here. The Trump Administration has, after all, resorted to intimidation tactics before.

Democracy

How Facebook grew too big to handle

Hannah Kuchler profiles Facebook’s legendary growth team, whose leaders remain in Mark Zuckerberg’s inner circle, and who have now been tasked with leading “integrity.”

As politicians and regulators discuss imposing new rules on social networks, Schultz — perhaps predictably — says Facebook has the tools to fix its own problems. In fact, he sees the platform’s vast size and expertise in data as key to the solution. “Having an international company that has the resources that we have, being able to apply the machine-learning tactics that we get in all of the data around the world — and then apply it to a new language, when it comes up, or a new problem area, when it comes up, is really, really powerful,” he says.

But critics worry that Schultz and his growth team are the last people who should be in charge of solving the social network’s problems. As one former Facebook executive told the FT: “It is perfectly reasonable to ask the question: isn’t that putting the foxes in the hen house?”

New Zealand PM welcomes Facebook bans on white nationalism, separatism

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern patted Facebook on the back for changing its policies around white nationalism:

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday that she welcomed Facebook’s decision to ban praise, support and representation of white nationalism and white separatism on its social media platforms.

“Arguably these categories should always fall within the community guidelines of hate speech, but nevertheless it’s positive the clarification has now been made in the wake of the attack in Christchurch,” she said at a press conference.

A home you can afford, brought to you by...Facebook?

Facebook is subsidizing 22 low-cost apartments for teachers in Menlo Park, Marisa Kendall reports:

It’s a step toward fixing a crisis that many blame on Facebook and other tech companies, arguing they are pumping the Bay Area full of high-paying jobs and helping to drive up the cost of housing. Now, as home and rent prices skyrocket, pushing teachers and other middle-income professionals farther and farther from the communities where they work, tech industry leaders are facing mounting pressure to fix the problem.

Facebook’s teacher housing, which the company says is costing $5 million over five years, is an experimental pilot project set to end in 2022. But Facebook hopes it can be replicated and expanded as part of the solution to the broader housing crisis.

Ten European lawmakers say they voted against pivotal copyright amendment by accident

Amending an item I had here yesterday: my colleague James Vincent’s story reports that the erroneous votes on the European Union’s Copyright Directive may not have swayed the outcome even had they all voted correctly:

Official voting records published by the EU show that 13 MEPs have declared they accidentally voted the wrong way on this amendment. According to the record, 10 MEPs say they accidentally rejected the amendment when they meant to approve it, two MEPs accidentally approved the amendment, and one MEP says he intended not to vote at all.

If these MEPs had voted as they said they meant to, the amendment would have been approved by a slim majority. Then there would have been further votes on whether the law would include Articles 11 and 13 (renamed articles 15 and 17 in the final draft), though no one can say how those would have gone.

Sundar Pichai met with President Trump about Google’s ‘commitment to working with the US government’

I have tried to imagine a conversation more awkward than Trump talking to Pichai about anything, and I have failed.

Reached by The Verge, Google confirmed the meeting and its subject matter. “We were pleased to have productive conversations with the President about investing in the future of the American workforce, the growth of emerging technologies and our ongoing commitment to working with the U.S. government,” a Google representative said in a statement.

Next time Trump bullies someone on Twitter, the company might call him out on it

Twitter is considering adding a note whenever it sees a tweet that it would have deleted, except that it’s scared to, Faiz Siddiqui reports:

The next time a politician, dignitary — or perhaps a president — makes an utterance that violates Twitter standards, the message might be accompanied by a note that expands on the 280-character tweet, a top official with the company said Wednesday.

Twitter is exploring how it can annotate offensive tweets that break its rules but remain in the public interest, said Vijaya Gadde, the company’s head of legal, policy, and trust and safety. It’s an effort to stem offensive content and hate speech and follows comments last year by chief executive Jack Dorsey, who said he is rethinking core parts of the platform to stem harassment and other abuses.

Berlin police break up mass brawl organised by two rival YouTube stars

I’ve been waiting for a while to find an English-language version of this wild story, and finally found one:

According to media reports, the brawl started as a result of a turf battle between the rival YouTubers. As a result, a senior Berlin police chief appealed to those with large internet followings to be more responsible.

“We see in the rapper scene, and increasingly also with other influencers, that they are sometimes very negligent with their influence,” said Norbert Cioma, head of the Berlin chapter of the GdP police union. “It seems to be fashionable to deliberately open a powder keg to generate more followers, subscribers and clicks.”

U.S. Orders Chinese Firm to Sell Dating App Grindr Over Blackmail Risk

Some good new details in Georgia Wells and Kate O’Keeffe’s story about the Grindr national security risk:

But there are many other social-media companies and apps that have access to personal data, and the Grindr action signals that the U.S. may block Chinese acquisitions of these as well, particularly those that process user preferences, geolocation and health data, the people said.

Executives at ephemeral-messaging company Snap believed Cfius would have blocked them from selling their company to a Chinese firm had they wanted to, according to a person familiar with the matter. Snap Chief Executive Evan Spiegel has said he has no interest in selling his company.

Elsewhere

Leaked emails reveal Facebook’s intense internal discussion over Alex Jones’ ‘anti-Semitic’ post on Instagram

Alex Jones is still allowed on Instagram for some reason, and after a recent post whipped up a predictable amount of anti-Semitic abuse, Facebook executives debated what to do over email. Jake Kanter reports:

“Sorry for jumping in late but can I check why the image is not considered violating, given the context that this image is widely considered to be anti-semitic? I appreciate on the face of it isn’t clear, but I’d have thought that wide consideration changes things?” the executive said.

Another member of the policy team added: “This image is widely acknowledged to be anti-Semitic and is a famous image in the UK due to public controversy around it. If we go back and say it does not violate we will be in for a lot criticism.”

The People With Power on Facebook’s Policy and Communications Team ($)

I’ve been told Facebook’s communications team has around 300 people (!!!), so Ashley Gold does us the service of making an organization chart about the folks leading it.

LGBT rights group suspends Google from its corporate rankings

Ina Fried reports that the Human Rights Campaign dropped Google from its list of good companies to work for after Google refused to pull a “conversion therapy” app from its store.

In a footnote to this year’s company ratings, HRC said it became aware of the app, from Living Hope Ministries, which it says “supports the practice of so-called ‘conversion therapy.’ ”

Twitter took over a user’s account and joked about reading their DMs

Give Facebook this much: they would never, ever do this in 1,000 years:

On Tuesday, Twitter began tweeting as Navarra. This mostly involved some gentle roasting — like tweets about muting people asking for an “edit” button, and other nonsense. Twitter said then it was going to tweet out some of Navarra’s drafts, and posted things like “who has a Google Wave code?” and something about BBM, among other things. (Navarra says these were fake — not real drafts.)

But other jokes were less funny. Twitter said it was reading Navarra’s DMs, for example.

Disturbing Audio Hurts Forensic Analysts’ Mental Health More Than Images, Research Finds

Kathryn Seigfried-Spellar, an assistant professor at Purdue University, presented some surprising findings about the effect of moderation work at a recent conference:

The survey results revealed that the analysts who suffered the greatest mental health impact from their work were audio analysts, who reported more feelings of worry, more suicidal thoughts and more motor agitation (i.e. pacing, fidgeting, foot-tapping etc.) than their counterparts, among other symptoms. Seigfried-Spellar suggested a possible reason for this—a lack of imagery to accompany the sounds may cause analysts’ imaginations to run wild in the worst way.

“They don’t have the context of what’s going on, they don’t have the video or the visual part of the context, so they’re imagining what’s happening,” said Seigfried-Spellar. “If they hear people screaming, if they hear somebody dying in the background, or they hear guns going off and people running, they’re envisioning what’s happening with that.”

Launches

Twitter adds a ‘lights out’ dark mode for OLED screens

Vlad Savov explains why Twitter just added an extra-dark mode:

Twitter, showing that it does occasionally listen to user requests, has delivered on CEO Jack Dorsey’s promise of a true, battery-saving dark mode. The company has just tweeted the announcement that its dark mode with a proper black background, which it’s dubbing “lights out,” is rolling out today, presumably to both its Android and iOS apps.

With every modern flagship phone, iPhones included, now having an OLED screen, the use of a black background in the most popularly used apps can really be a help with extending battery life. The OLED panel only lights up the pixels that aren’t black, so a lot of energy can be saved if you’re just perusing the endless scroll of pained screams into the digital ether in the true dark.

Facebook extends its Dating service to Mexico, Argentina

Some new stuff coming to Facebook Dating:

The social networking giant also gave a preview of some new features users can expect in the near future, including one that appears to be designed to address safety concerns. The feature, called Live Location Sharing, allows users to share their date plans and live location with a friend or family member on Facebook via Messenger.

Another forthcoming feature aims to make it easier to create a Facebook Dating profile. The Auto Profile Create will automatically gather photos and information from a user’s Facebook account to create a suggested Dating profile. All the information in the new profile can be edited and removed before its creation, and users can still opt to create their own profile from scratch.

Takes

The Twitterization of the Academic Mind

Gordon Fraser says “Social media has made scholars impatient, vicious, and dull.”

While Twitter debates between scholars and provocateurs reduce academics to mere peddlers of opinion, Twitter controversies between scholars themselves do just as much harm to the profession. Academic Twitter is often held out as a site of scholarly community, and sometimes it is. But scholars are not immune to the site’s structural disposition toward rancorous factionalism. Academics have taken to Twitter and other forms of social media to contest questions of scholarship and politics, and the resulting speed, ferocity, and imprecision have revolutionized how we treat our interlocutors. Scholarly methodologies are referred to as “dumb.” Essays by scholars are described as “stupid.” Amid one controversy, scholars and members of the public resorted to a demeaning nickname for an academic author with whom they disagreed. Twitter promises speed and publicity, and it delivers. It encourages scholars to perform in real time for an audience of the like-minded, enabling a form of solidarity that is by turns sycophantic, hyperbolic, or cruel.

Do technology companies care about journalism?

Emily Bell questions the growing coziness between publishers and Google:

In all these operations, transparency and a commitment to editorial independence from funding makes for somewhat comfortable relationships. But when it comes to corporate interests, journalists have to be alert to agendas in conflict with their own. For technology to support journalism in a totally independent way—more than one way, in fact—is possible, for the record: It can be done through taxation and an expansion of civic media. It can be done through payments into arms-length endowments administered by separate bodies. It can even be done by changing the incentive structures on their own platforms to elevate and return more money to newsrooms.

Whether it can be done with the direct system of patronage Google is offering remains highly unlikely.

And finally ...

TikTok user Avatar Aang does his best impression of Facebook notifications, and it’s well worth the short watch.

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and discriminatory housing ads: casey@theverge.com.