Skip Navigation
Get updates:

We respect your privacy

Thanks for signing up!

WASHINGTON — Facebook can be sued for allegedly discriminating on the basis of race and sex in housing advertisements, in violation of civil-rights laws, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on Friday.

The Ninth Circuit ruled in the case Rosemarie Vargas, et al v. Facebook, Inc. that a lower district court had erred by holding that Facebook is immune from liability pursuant to Section 230 of the Communications Act, which generally indemnifies interactive websites from liability for third-party content. Facebook created an advertising platform that allowed companies to target advertisements to specific categories of users. Plaintiff Vargas claims that Facebook had excluded her based on her ethnicity from seeing certain real-estate ads. The Ninth Circuit held that she sufficiently alleged that Facebook’s conduct injured her by denying her equal treatment.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision aligns with the arguments made by Free Press, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the National Fair Housing Alliance in an amicus brief. The groups argued that Facebook’s conduct was discriminatory and exacerbated the persisting effects of historic discrimination. All Rise Trial and Appellate served as outside counsel to the organizations for the filing.

The Ninth Circuit’s panel of judges stated that the plaintiff’s allegations in the lawsuit — if proven true — could show that Facebook with its audience-selection tool was a “co-developer” of the discriminatory ads, and wasn’t merely hosting information provided by a third party.

“Discrimination in advertisements for housing, jobs, and other key aspects of American life has a long history, as do civil rights laws curtailing it,” the groups wrote in their amicus brief. “That such discrimination happens on the Internet does not make Facebook’s practices different in kind from discriminatory offline conduct that has been found to violate civil rights laws.” The brief argued that these laws have long proscribed discriminatory advertising that makes it harder for people of color to access economic opportunities.

“The court’s ruling today is a major victory for digital civil rights against the array of ways that platforms have tried, for far too long, to evade accountability for their own discriminatory practices,” said Nora Benavidez, senior counsel and director of digital justice and civil rights at Free Press. “Facebook has tried to argue that it’s simply a passive transmitter of information to users on its services. The Ninth Circuit rightly found that a claim exists when someone alleges Facebook’s creation and implementation of algorithms and ad platforms deny specific users equal experience and opportunity online. Facebook’s conduct denies users a range of opportunities, implicating people’s civil rights on and offline. We’re glad that the ruling opens possible pathways for accountability against social-media platforms when they themselves develop and use patently discriminatory tools.”

“We applaud the Court’s decision. When Facebook uses race and other protected characteristics to exclude users from ads for economic opportunities, it is engaging in online segregation,” said David Brody, managing attorney of the Digital Justice Initiative at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Allowing this conduct to continue will open the door for online commerce in this generation to mirror the discrimination and redlining of earlier generations.”

“The Ninth Circuit’s decision recognizes that online discrimination is just as harmful as discrimination offline, especially for women of color, people with disabilities, single parents and other people from marginalized backgrounds,” said Linda Morris, staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “Digital redlining has become the new frontier of discrimination, as social-media platforms like Facebook and online advertisers use personal data to target ads based on race, gender and other protected traits. This victory is a critical step to holding Facebook accountable for its discriminatory ad-targeting practices and advancing racial and gender equity in housing, employment and credit. The ACLU will continue to challenge discriminatory practices and work toward holding social-media platforms accountable to ensure equity in AI systems.”

More Press Releases