Dems Propose Screening Algorithms for Bias

The Algorithmic Accountability Act would require companies to ensure their automated decision-making systems comply with discrimination law.
Matthew HellerApril 11, 2019
Dems Propose Screening Algorithms for Bias

U.S. lawmakers have introduced a bill to address what they see as a gaping hole in anti-discrimination protections — the computer algorithms that companies use to make automated decisions.

The Algorithmic Accountability Act would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to create regulations requiring companies to assess their automated decision-making systems for race, gender or other discriminatory biases.

“Computers are increasingly involved in the most important decisions affecting Americans’ lives – whether or not someone can buy a home, get a job or even go to jail,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a news release. “But instead of eliminating bias, too often these algorithms depend on biased assumptions or data that can actually reinforce discrimination against women and people of color.”

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Wyden introduced the bill with Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in the Senate while Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) is sponsoring equivalent legislation in the House.

“Algorithms shouldn’t have an exception from our anti-discrimination laws,” Clarke said.

According to Reuters, however, the bill “could face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate.”

“This would only serve to stigmatize and discourage AI use, which could reduce its beneficial social and economic impacts,” said Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a non-profit that includes industry representatives on its board.

The three Democratic lawmakers cited recent reports of algorithms creating biased and discriminatory results. Earlier this month, the Department of Housing and Urban Development alleged Facebook’s ad targeting system allows landlords and home sellers to discriminate against prospective buyers or tenants.

Booker likened such discrimination to the practice of “steering” black families away from certain neighborhoods in New Jersey. “The discrimination my family faced in 1969 can be significantly harder to detect in 2019 … all due to biased algorithms,” he said.

The proposed legislation would apply to companies with annual revenue above $50 million, that hold information on at least 1 million people or devices, or primarily act as brokers that buy and sell consumer data.

The New York City Council became the first U.S. legislature to pass an algorithm transparency bill in 2017.