By Katie Benner, Glenn Thrush and Mike Isaac

New York Times News Service

Federal agencies investigating Facebook

A variety of federal agencies have opened inquiries into possible civil and criminal violations of laws related to privacy, corporate governance and discrimination. Facebook has largely denied wrongdoing in each of the investigations and said it was cooperating with regulators and law enforcement.

Federal Trade Commission

The top federal watchdog for consumer protection is investigating potential privacy violations by the social network related to the harvesting of Facebook user data by a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica.

Securities and Exchange Commission

The SEC started investigating how much Facebook knew about the data harvested by Cambridge Analytica and if executives of the social network properly disclosed its findings.

Justice Department

The Justice Department’s securities fraud division is said to be investigating whether Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained data on Facebook users. Separately, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York is said to be conducting a criminal investigation into Facebook’s data-sharing partnerships with dozens of tech companies, including Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Sony.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development sued Facebook on Thursday for engaging in housing discrimination by allowing advertisers to restrict who is able to see ads on the platform based on characteristics like race, religion and national origin.

In addition to targeting Facebook’s advertising practices, HUD also states in its lawsuit that the company uses its data-mining practices to determine which of its users are able to view housing-related ads. On both counts, the department said, Facebook is in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.

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

The lawsuit coincides with a broader push by civil rights groups to scrutinize whether big technology companies are reinforcing real-world biases online by using algorithms to identify and target specific groups of users.

Facebook has drawn particular attention since it became clear that its ad-targeting technology, which helps marketers narrowly focus their efforts to reach potential customers, was among the Russian government’s primary tools for meddling in the 2016 presidential election by exploiting racial and other rifts in the United States.

HUD has begun scrutinizing the actions of other tech companies, including Google, according to an administration official with direct knowledge of the matter who requested anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly. HUD officials recently drafted letters to executives at Google and Twitter asking if they would be willing to have discussions on a range of issues relating to fair housing, the person said.

Facebook appeared to be taken aback by HUD’s move, noting that this month it had removed advertisers’ ability to target housing, credit and jobs ads by age, gender, ZIP code and other categories in ways that could be considered discriminatory.

“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” ad discrimination, Facebook said in a statement. The company added that its negotiations with the housing agency over the issue had broken down because the agency wanted access to too much user information “without adequate safeguards.”

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