Facebook, the social media giant, has been charged for enabling housing advertisers to use targeting tools in order to effectively discriminate against users based on criteria such as their race, nationality and religion.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) charged Facebook with violating the Fair Housing Act by “encouraging, enabling, and causing housing discrimination” via its ad platform.

More specifically, it suggested that optional restrictions on who can view housing-related ads on Facebook’s owned sites, and across the broader web, facilitated unlawful discrimination.

Among the criteria that fell under this rubric were a user’s “race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, sex, and disability,” according to HUD.

More specifically, this includes filtering premised on whether Facebook users were parents, “non-Christian”, “non-American born”, “interested in accessibility”, “interested in Hispanic culture” and other similar factors.

HUD also asserted that Facebook “mines extensive data about its users and then uses those data to determine which of its users view housing-related ads based, in part, on these protected characteristics.”

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

The civil charges could either be heard by a federal administrative law judge or a federal district judge. Should the ruling go against Facebook, it may lead to damages and fines.

A Facebook spokesman told the Wall Street Journal it was surprised by HUD’s action, as the social media company has been working with the department in an attempt to tackle its concerns.

Facebook has also implemented concrete measures, such as removing thousands of targeting options, in order to help address this type of advertising discrimination

“While we were eager to find a solution, HUD insisted on access to sensitive information – like user data – without adequate safeguards,” the spokesman said.

“We’re disappointed by today’s developments, but we’ll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues.”

Sourced from HUD, Wall Street Journal; additional content by WARC staff