Algorithmic Accountability Act Will Force Companies to Check for Coded Bias

Democratic Senators have introduced a bill that would require companies to check for bias in algorithms. Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.) introduced the Algorithmic Accountability Act, which will ask the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to require companies to evaluate “highly sensitive automated decision systems” to find bias and privacy risks.

In a statement, Booker said his family faced a practice called “real estate steering,” which deters Black couples from buying homes in certain neighborhoods. The presidential hopeful said it was important that companies are required to identify the bias in algorithms and other tools it uses. “The discrimination that my family faced in 1969 can be significantly harder to detect in 2019: houses that you never know are for sale, job opportunities that never present themselves, and financing that you never become aware of — all due to biased algorithms," Booker said in the release. "This bill requires companies to regularly evaluate their tools for accuracy, fairness, bias, and discrimination. It's a key step toward ensuring more accountability from the entities using software to make decisions that can change lives." The Algorithmic Accountability Act will also force companies to investigate their information systems to make sure consumers’ personal information is protected, and correct any issues if those automated decision systems impact accuracy, fairness, or bias.

The introduction of the bill comes weeks after the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) filed charges against Facebook for housing discrimination in its ad targeting system. The charges stemmed from a complaint filed by HUD in August, which stated that Facebook's ads violated the Fair Housing Act.

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

Lawmakers who sponsored the bill also mention the Amazon AI recruiting tool, which allegedly discriminated against women, Reuters previously reported. "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. 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," Senator Wyden said in a press release. "Our bill requires companies to study the algorithms they use, identify bias in these systems, and fix any discrimination or bias they find."

Data for Black Lives also noted that it supports the bill, and hopes the Algorithmic Accountability Act will make companies accountable for their computer algorithms.

"We know first hand the harmful impact that automated decision systems have on parents fighting for access to quality education, Black mothers engaging health systems in how to provide care that protects their newborns, and activists fighting against community disinvestment and deprivation,” the organization said in the news release. Data for Black Lives added that the organization is hopeful that the Algorithmic Accountability Act will open a broader discussion about the “tremendous potential for data systems, if used ethically, to uplift, empower, and democratize our communities."

Last year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s first algorithm task force, The Automated Decision Systems Task Force. The watchdog group aims to submit a report by December 2019 what will recommend “procedures for reviewing and assessing city algorithmic tools to ensure equity and opportunity.”

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.