Progressive advocacy groups on Thursday applauded a pair of congressional Democrats for unveiling a bill that aims to make Big Tech companies publicly disclose in plain language how they manage online content as well as prevent management systems that discriminate on the basis of ability, age, gender, race, and other protected classes.
“The Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act is an essential roadmap for digital justice to move us forward on the path to online equity and stop these discriminatory practices.”
—Rep. Doris Matsui
The Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act of 2021 (pdf), introduced by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), would also establish an inter-agency task force to study the discriminatory use of personal or biometric information in the education, healthcare, housing, and financial sectors.
Algorithms, as the sponsors explained in a statement, “are the automated systems built into the infrastructure of a platform that determine what content users see online.”
“As we work to eliminate injustice in our society, we cannot ignore the online ecosystem,” declared Markey. “It is time to open up Big Tech’s hood, enact strict prohibitions on harmful algorithms, and prioritize justice for communities who have long been discriminated against as we work toward platform accountability.”
“Biased artificial intelligence systems have become embedded in the fabric of our digital society and they must be rooted out,” he added.
It’s crucial that we demand transparency from 21st century platforms about long-held biases & systemic injustices contained within certain algorithms.
— Rep. Doris Matsui (@DorisMatsui) May 27, 2021
Echoing that sentiment, Matsui said that “we stand amidst a reckoning on racial justice and discrimination, and we must seize the moment by doing all we can to root out prejudiced practices wherever they occur.”
“As we work for justice and reform, it is crucial that we remain vigilant by demanding transparency from 21st century platforms about the algorithms that shape our online interactions,” she said. “For far too many Americans, long-held biases and systemic injustices contained within certain algorithms are perpetuating inequalities and barriers to access.”
According to the congresswoman, “The Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act is an essential roadmap for digital justice to move us forward on the path to online equity and stop these discriminatory practices.”
In addition to prohibiting discriminatory algorithmic processes on online platforms and forcing tech companies to publish clear explanations of their data collection and content moderation practices, the bill would create a safety and effectiveness standard for algorithms.
The task force charged with investigating discriminatory practices would include representatives from the Department of Commerce, Department of Education, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, and Federal Trade Commission.
“America needs a strong roadmap for digital justice and this legislation is it,” said David Brody, who leads the Digital Justice Initiative at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, highlighting that the bill “would protect against online discrimination, establish guardrails for artificial intelligence, and promote equal opportunity on the internet.”
Free Press Action senior policy counsel Carmen Scurato expressed gratitude for the sponsors’ efforts, saying tha “the bill’s transparency requirements are a necessary step to holding platforms accountable for abusive data practices that perpetuate disparate outcomes against Black and Brown people and other impacted communities.”
“We have long called on lawmakers to expand the privacy debate and account for civil rights violations perpetrated online,” Scurato said. “Markey and Matsui recognize the need for online businesses to protect the rights of impacted communities, and to prevent discrimination based on people’s personal information and characteristics.”
Other groups that have endorsed the bill include Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC, Access Now, Center for Digital Democracy, Color of Change, Common Cause, Common Sense Media, Consumer Reports, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), National Hispanic Media Coalition, Public Citizen, and Public Knowledge.
“For far too long, Big Tech and other technology companies have [hidden] behind their black box algorithms to avoid accountability for their civil rights abuses,” said Public Citizen executive vice president Lisa Gilbert. She praised the proposal “for reaffirming that discrimination has no place in our economy—and that discrimination in the digital world is no exception.”
Willmary Escoto, U.S. policy analyst at Access Now, also framed the bill as long overdue.
“Online platforms have gotten away with profiting off of and exploiting our most personal data for far too long,” Escoto said. “This bill would help hold companies accountable for unlawful algorithmic processes, and is a serious step towards algorithmic justice and ensuring that the design and deployment of AI-assisted technologies respect civil and human rights.”
The advocacy group Fight for the Future also welcomed the bill as “a breath of fresh air,” celebrating that it takes aim at “the root cause of Big Tech’s harms without misguided attacks on Section 230” of the Communications Decency Act, which supporters call “the most important law protecting free speech online.”
“Sen. Markey’s office has taken a powerful step forward in support of putting people’s digital rights first,” the group said. “We will continue to push for strong legislation that strikes at the root of Big Tech’s harms: its surveillance capitalist business model, which is fundamentally incompatible with basic human rights and democracy.”
“Fight for the Future opposes reckless changes to Section 230 that could harm marginalized communities and human rights,” the statement continues. “We support strong federal data privacy legislation, robust antitrust enforcement, and the restoration of net neutrality. We’ve called for an outright ban on surveillance-based advertising, and immediate industry-wide moratorium on non-transparent forms of algorithmic manipulation of content and newsfeeds.”
“We don’t agree that more aggressive content moderation on its own will address the harms of Big Tech,” Fight for the Future added, “and we fear that without structural changes, more aggressive platform moderation and content removal will disproportionately harm marginalized people and social movements.”
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