Facebook had its own "redlining" program built into the company's software, according to charges filed against the social media giant by the federal government on Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which brought the charges, alleges the social media giant "unlawfully discriminates based on race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, sex, and disability by restricting who can view housing-related ads on Facebook's platforms and across the internet."
HUD secretary Ben Carson said in a statement that Facebook's advertisement parameters which allowed advertisers to tailor who saw their ads were as effective an act of "redlining"—the practice of keeping people of color out of predominately white neighborhoods—as drawing lines on a physical map was in the past.
"Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live," said Carson. "Using a computer to limit a person's housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone's face."
Facebook, in a statement to The New York Times, said it was surprised by the charges.
"We're surprised by HUD's decision, as we've been working with them to address their concerns," the company said.
The department's decision came after years of reporting from ProPublica on Facebook's use of the advertising tactic and after a year of litigation against the practice by civil rights groups.
In reporting on Thursday's decision, ProPublica reporter Ariana Tobin pointed out that HUD's decision might be based in something other than concern for people victimized by Facebook's practices.
HUD’s suit against Facebook is an unusual decision for the Trump administration. It has frequently moved to curtail civil rights investigations. At the same time, Facebook and other social platforms have faced criticism by conservatives who allege their posts expressing political views are being suppressed.
Given that political environment and a healthy distrust of the priorities of the Trump administration, rights groups were cautious in their praise for the decision to go after Facebook for the company's behavior.
"HUD's action today is commendable, if not overdue," said Free Press's Gaurav Larioa.
"HUD's action today is commendable, if not overdue," said Gaurav Laroia, policy counsel for the advocacy group Free Press, in a statement.
"Companies shouldn't get rich by denying people their civil rights," added Laroia. "The case against Facebook is an invitation to fundamentally reassess the business model that facilitates and encourages these practices across way too many online platforms."