Sunday, March 31, 2019

HUD Sues Facebook Over Housing Discrimination and Says the Company’s Algorithms Have Made the Problem Worse

The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Thursday it is suing Facebook for violating the Fair Housing Act by allowing advertisers to limit housing ads based on race, gender and other characteristics.

The agency also said Facebook’s ad system discriminates against users even when advertisers did not choose to do so.
ProPublica first reported in 2016 that Facebook allowed housing advertisers to exclude users by race. Then in 2017, ProPublica found that — despite Facebook’s promised changes — the company was still letting advertisers exclude users by race, gender, ethnicity, family status, ability and other characteristics.

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

In a statement, Facebook said, “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.
HUD’s suit comes a week after Facebook announced sweeping changes to its advertising portal, preventing landlords, employers and lenders from discriminating in housing, employment or credit ads.

Facebook also disputed HUD’s conclusion that the system itself discriminates beyond advertisers’ choices: “HUD had no evidence and finding that our AI systems discriminate against people.”
A Facebook spokesperson told ProPublica that the company declined to give HUD data about who is actually seeing ads because of privacy concerns.

Asked about that, HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said, “We are bound, and Facebook itself is bound, not to disclose sensitive negotiations, and so there’s very little we can say to that point.”
Peter Romer-Friedman, an employment attorney involved in multiple lawsuits that Facebook settled last week, said HUD’s suit — and the contention that Facebook’s algorithm is amplifying discrimination — may have implications for other cases related to employment and Facebook ads. “The point that the HUD complaint makes about bias in the delivery algorithm is the same exact point that we’ve been making for nearly a year” in another case involving alleged age discrimination on Facebook, Romer-Friedman said.

Thursday’s charge comes after a year of litigation from housing groups. In March 2018, the National Fair Housing Alliance sued Facebook, alleging it allowed advertisers to discriminate against legally protected groups, including mothers, the disabled and Spanish speakers. A few months later, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the case. Soon after, HUD filed a formal complaint, signaling that it had found enough evidence during its initial investigation to raise the possibility of further legal action.

Facebook’s previous response to HUD contended that advertisers — not the company — were responsible for targeting ads. In March 2018, Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said at the time: “There is absolutely no place for discrimination on Facebook. We believe this lawsuit is without merit, and we will defend ourselves vigorously.”

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.
Carson is scheduled to testify on the Hill in budget hearings on April 3.
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Sunday, March 24, 2019

Aging Machines, Crowds, Humidity: Problems at the Polls Were Mundane but Widespread


Instead of fireworks from voter intimidation or cyberattacks, Americans grappled with the mundane frustrations of using dated equipment to vote in huge numbers.

by Ian MacDougall, Jessica Huseman, and Isaac Arnsdorf, ProPublica

If the defining risk of Election Day 2016 was a foreign meddling, 2018’s seems to have been a domestic overload. High turnout across the country threw existing problems — aging machines, poorly trained poll workers and a hot political landscape — into sharp relief.
Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who studies turnout, says early numbers indicate last November's midterm saw the highest percentage turnout since the mid-’60s. “All signs indicate that everyone is now engaged in this country — Republicans and Democrats,” he said, adding that he expects 2020 to also be a year of high turnout. “Election officials need to start planning for that now, and hopefully elected officials who hold the purse strings will be responsive to those needs.”

Aging Technology

Electionland monitored problems across the country on Election Day, supporting the work of 250 local journalists in more than 120 local newsrooms. Thousands of voters reported issues at the polls, and Electionland sought to report on as many as possible. The most striking problem of the night was perhaps the most predictable — aged or ineffective voting equipment caused hourslong lines across the country.

American voting hasn’t had a major technology refresh since the early 2000s, in the aftermath of the Florida recount and the passage of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which infused billions of dollars into American elections. More recent upgrades, such as poll books that could be accessed via computer, were supposed to reduce bottlenecks at check-ins — but they repeatedly failed on election day, worsening waits in Georgia, South Carolina and Indiana.

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Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Story Behind Jared Kushner’s Curious Acceptance Into Harvard

ProPublica editor Daniel Golden wrote a book a decade ago about how the rich buy their children access to elite colleges. One student he covered is now poised to become one of the most powerful figures in the country.

by Daniel Golden, ProPublica

I would like to express my gratitude to Jared Kushner for reviving interest in my 2006 book, “The Price of Admission.” I have never met or spoken with him, and it’s rare in this life to find such a selfless benefactor. Of course, I doubt he became Donald Trump’s son-in-law and consigliere merely to boost my lagging sales, but still, I’m thankful.

My book exposed a grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations. It reported that New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, not long before his son Jared was admitted to the prestigious Ivy League school. At the time, Harvard accepted about one of every nine applicants. (Nowadays, it only takes one out of twenty.)

I also quoted administrators at Jared’s high school, who described him as a less than stellar student and expressed dismay at Harvard’s decision.

“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former official at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey, told me. “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.”
Risa Heller, a spokeswoman for Kushner Companies, said in an email Thursday that “the allegation” that Charles Kushner’s gift to Harvard was related to Jared’s admission “is and always has been false.” His parents, Charles and Seryl Kushner, “are enormously generous and have donated over 100 million dollars to universities, hospitals and other charitable causes. Jared Kushner was an excellent student in high school and graduated from Harvard with honors.” (About 90 percent of Jared’s 2003 class at Harvard also graduated with honors.)

My Kushner discoveries were an offshoot of my research for a chapter on Harvard donors. Somebody had slipped me a document I had long coveted: the membership list of Harvard’s Committee on University Resources. The university wooed more than 400 of its biggest givers and most promising prospects by putting them on this committee and inviting them to campus periodically to be wined, dined, and subjected to lectures by eminent professors.

My idea was to figure out how many children of these corporate titans, oil barons, money managers, lawyers, high-tech consultants and old-money heirs had gone to Harvard. A disproportionate tally might suggest that the university eased its standards for the offspring of wealthy backers.
I began working through the list, poring over “Who’s Who in America” and Harvard class reunion reports for family information. Charles and Seryl Kushner were both on the committee. I had never heard of them, but their joint presence struck me as a sign that Harvard’s fundraising machine held the couple in especially fond regard.

The clips showed that Charles Kushner’s empire encompassed 25,000 New Jersey apartments, along with extensive office, industrial and retail space and undeveloped land. Unlike most of his fellow committee members, though, Kushner was not a Harvard man. He had graduated from New York University. This eliminated the sentimental tug of the alma mater as a reason for him to give to Harvard, leaving another likely explanation: his children.

Sure enough, his sons Jared and Joshua had both enrolled there.

Charles Kushner differed from his peers on the committee in another way; he had a criminal record. Five years after Jared entered Harvard, the elder Kushner pleaded guilty in 2004 to tax violations, illegal campaign donations, and retaliating against a witness. (As it happens, the prosecutor in the case was Chris Christie, recently ousted as the head of Trump’s transition team.) Charles Kushner had hired a prostitute to seduce his brother-in-law, who was cooperating with federal authorities. Kushner then had a videotape of the tryst sent to his sister. He was sentenced to two years in federal prison.
I completed my analysis, which justified my hunch. Of the 400-plus tycoons on Harvard’s list — which included people who were childless or too young to have college-age offspring — more than half had sent at least one child to the university.

I also decided that the Kushner-Harvard relationship deserved special attention. Although the university often heralded big gifts in press releases or a bulletin called — in a classic example of fundraising wit, “Re:sources” — a search of these outlets came up empty. Harvard didn’t seem eager to be publicly associated with Charles Kushner.

While looking into Kushner’s taxes, though, federal authorities had subpoenaed records of his charitable giving. I learned that in 1998, when Jared was attending The Frisch School and starting to look at colleges, his father had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard, to be paid in annual installments of $250,000. Charles Kushner also visited Neil Rudenstine, then Harvard president, and discussed funding a scholarship program for low- and middle-income students.

I phoned a Harvard official, with whom I was on friendly terms. First I asked whether the gift played any role in Jared’s admission. “You know we don’t comment on individual applicants,” he said. When I pressed further, he hung up. We haven’t spoken since.

At Harvard, Jared Kushner majored in government. Now the 35-year-old is poised to become the power behind the presidency. What he plans to do, and in what direction he and his father-in-law will lead the country, are far more important than his high school grades.

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