Jenner & Block

Consumer Law Round-Up

April 29, 2019 HUD Brings Housing Discrimination Charge Against Facebook

By Emily A. Bruemmer

HousingOn March 28, 2019, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) filed a Charge of Discrimination against Facebook, alleging that Facebook violated the Fair Housing Act “by encouraging, enabling, and causing housing discrimination through the company’s advertising platform.”  This is an administrative action filed by the Secretary of HUD, on behalf of complainant Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, before the Office of Administrative Law Judges at HUD.  Unless any of the parties chooses to have the case heard in federal district court, an administrative law judge will hear the charge and may award damages, in addition to injunctive or other equitable relief, attorney fees, and fines.  HUD previously announced a formal complaint, initiated by the Secretary of HUD, against Facebook in August 2018.  The formal complaint was the first step in a process that then moved to a fact-finding investigation.  Last month’s charge indicates that the investigation resulted in a determination that there was reasonable cause to believe that Facebook violated the Fair Housing Act.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits making, printing, or publishing (or causing to be made, printed, or published) notices, statements, or advertisements related to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicate “any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familiar status, or national origin, or an intention to make any such preference, limitation, or discrimination.”  Here, HUD has alleged that Facebook violated that prohibition by allowing advertisers not only on its social media platforms but also across the Internet through its advertising services to select or exclude categories of recipients of housing-related advertising by making distinctions based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, disability, and/or zip codes.  According to the charge, advertisers could use a map tool to exclude people who lived in specific areas by drawing red lines, evoking historical discrimination through “redlining.”

This enforcement action came just ten days after Facebook settled five lawsuits related to allegedly discriminatory advertising practices, including one by fair housing groups the National Fair Housing Alliance, Fair Housing Council of Greater San Antonio, Fair Housing Justice Center of New York, and Housing Opportunities Project for Excellence, Inc. of Miami related to Facebook’s housing advertisement practices, and one by the ACLU, the Communications Workers of America, and Outten & Golden LLP related to sex discrimination in employment advertisements.

As HUD General Counsel Paul Compton stated in the press release: “Fashioning appropriate remedies and the rules of the road for today’s technology as it impacts housing are a priority for HUD.”  Further, that HUD’s lawsuit follows Facebook’s settlements with private parties provides a reminder that settling lawsuits with private plaintiffs is no guarantee that a federal or state regulator will not bring its own, separate enforcement action.  The case will be an important one to watch.

CATEGORIES: Privacy Data Security

April 26, 2019 Facebook Announces Potential $5 Billion FTC Fine

By Emily A. Bruemmer

Facebook-privacyOn April 24, 2019, Facebook announced in its Q1 earnings release that it had set aside $3 billion and estimates that it may pay up to $5 billion in a fine related to the FTC’s ongoing inquiry into its “platform and user data practices.” Facebook entered into a settlement with the FTC related to its privacy practices in 2011, which has reportedly been re-opened. This would be the largest fine ever imposed by the FTC on a technology company. The possibility of a “multi-billion dollar fine” was first reported this February by The Washington Post.

CATEGORIES: Privacy Data Security

April 26, 2019 Facebook Announces Potential $5 Billion FTC Fine

By Emily A. Bruemmer

Facebook-privacyOn April 24, 2019, Facebook announced in its Q1 earnings release that it had set aside $3 billion and estimates that it may pay up to $5 billion in a fine related to the FTC’s ongoing inquiry into its “platform and user data practices.” Facebook entered into a settlement with the FTC related to its privacy practices in 2011, which has reportedly been re-opened. This would be the largest fine ever imposed by the FTC on a technology company. The possibility of a “multi-billion dollar fine” was first reported this February by The Washington Post.

CATEGORIES: Privacy Data Security

March 20, 2019 Facebook Announces New Privacy Initiative

By Emily A. Bruemmer

Smartphone computerOn March 6, 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced via an interview and a Facebook blog post a planned shift to “building a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform.”  Characterizing this shift as a “privacy-focused vision,” Zuckerberg said that this change in focus meant that Facebook and Instagram would not only function as “the digital equivalent of a town square” but also “the digital equivalent of the living room.”  This shift was billed in part as a response to user demand: according to the post, the “fastest growing areas of online communication” were private messaging, “ephemeral stories,” and small group communication. 

According to the blog post, Facebook’s “privacy-focused platform” will be based on six principles: private interactions, encryption, reducing permanence, safety, interoperability, and secure data storage.  “Interoperability” refers to Facebook’s plan to integrate its messaging services across Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram Direct.  The blog post did not provide much detail on what these principles would mean in practice or what changes users would see from an experiential perspective, but rather qualified its efforts as being in the “early stages.”  

The blog post acknowledged Facebook’s reputation for not building “privacy protective services.”  In 2011, Facebook entered into a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) related to its privacy practices and has continued to face criticism for its privacy and data protection practices.  Indeed, just a few days prior to the announcement, news reports circulated regarding the ability to look up individuals on Facebook based on their telephone numbers, despite Facebook’s statements to users when they provided their telephone numbers that the number would be used for two-factor authentication.  Reports last year led to Facebook’s confirmation that the telephone numbers are also used for advertising. 

Some legislators and regulators have expressed concerns about information sharing between Facebook’s services. Last month, the German antitrust regulator issued a decision restricting Facebook from sharing information between services in the absence of users’ voluntary consent.  Facebook announced that it planned to appeal the decision.

CATEGORIES: Privacy Data Security

March 20, 2019 Facebook Announces New Privacy Initiative

By Emily A. Bruemmer

Smartphone computerOn March 6, 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced via an interview and a Facebook blog post a planned shift to “building a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform.”  Characterizing this shift as a “privacy-focused vision,” Zuckerberg said that this change in focus meant that Facebook and Instagram would not only function as “the digital equivalent of a town square” but also “the digital equivalent of the living room.”  This shift was billed in part as a response to user demand: according to the post, the “fastest growing areas of online communication” were private messaging, “ephemeral stories,” and small group communication. 

According to the blog post, Facebook’s “privacy-focused platform” will be based on six principles: private interactions, encryption, reducing permanence, safety, interoperability, and secure data storage.  “Interoperability” refers to Facebook’s plan to integrate its messaging services across Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram Direct.  The blog post did not provide much detail on what these principles would mean in practice or what changes users would see from an experiential perspective, but rather qualified its efforts as being in the “early stages.”  

The blog post acknowledged Facebook’s reputation for not building “privacy protective services.”  In 2011, Facebook entered into a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) related to its privacy practices and has continued to face criticism for its privacy and data protection practices.  Indeed, just a few days prior to the announcement, news reports circulated regarding the ability to look up individuals on Facebook based on their telephone numbers, despite Facebook’s statements to users when they provided their telephone numbers that the number would be used for two-factor authentication.  Reports last year led to Facebook’s confirmation that the telephone numbers are also used for advertising. 

Some legislators and regulators have expressed concerns about information sharing between Facebook’s services. Last month, the German antitrust regulator issued a decision restricting Facebook from sharing information between services in the absence of users’ voluntary consent.  Facebook announced that it planned to appeal the decision.

CATEGORIES: Privacy Data Security