Congress Urged To Ban Use Of Big Data To Discriminate

As Congress prepares to tackle online privacy, advocacy groups say new privacy legislation should prohibit companies from using data in ways that violate civil rights laws.

“Civil rights protections have existed in brick-and-mortar commerce for decades. It is time to ensure they apply to the internet economy as well,” 44 organizations including Public Knowledge, the ACLU, Center for Democracy & Technology and Electronic Privacy Information Center said this week in a letter to House and Senate leaders.

The letter comes as lawmakers are preparing new federal privacy legislation. Late last year, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) unveiled a draft bill that would give consumers the right to prevent information about them from being shared or sold by ad-tech companies.

The civil rights groups argue this week that privacy laws should specifically include anti-discrimination provisions.

“Platforms and other online services should not be permitted to use consumer data to discriminate against protected classes or deny them opportunities in commerce, housing, and employment, or full participation in our democracy,” the groups say. “Companies also should be required to be transparent about their collection and use of personal information in automated decision making, and to anticipate and protect against discriminatory uses and disparate impacts of big data.”

The organizations don't mention any company by name, but Facebook has previously come under fire for allowing landlords, employers and others to exclude people in some demographic categories from viewing ads.

Last August, faced with civil lawsuits and a new federal investigation, Facebook said it was removing more than 5,000 ad-targeting options -- including ones that may enable discrimination based on ethnicity or religion.

Public Knowledge and the others are also urging Congress to give people the right to correct inaccurate data about themselves.

“Government and corporate databases must allow everyone -- including the urban and rural poor, people with disabilities, seniors, and people who lack access to the Internet -- to appropriately ensure the accuracy of personal information that is used to make important decisions about them,” the watchdogs write. “This requires disclosure of the underlying data, and the right to correct it when inaccurate.”

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