White House Tackles 'Algorithmic Discrimination'

Aiming to curb so-called “algorithmic discrimination,” the White House is directing by regulators to address ways in which tech companies' automated systems potentially fuel bias.

In an executive order issued late last week, President Joe Biden specifically told federal agencies to combat discrimination, “including by protecting the public from algorithmic discrimination.”

The order defined that term as “instances when automated systems contribute to unjustified different treatment or impacts disfavoring people” based on protected characteristics, such as race, religion, sex and genetic information.

The order comes amid continued scrutiny of the algorithms used by tech companies. Several years ago, researchers from Northeastern University, the University of Southern California, and the advocacy group Upturn reported that Facebook's ad-delivery system appears to send ads to users based on stereotypes.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also sued Facebook in 2019, alleging that its ad-delivery system discriminates based on characteristics like race and gender -- even when advertisers don't want to do so.

Meta recently settled that complaint by agreeing to roll out a new ad targeting system that will rely on machine learning to curb discrimination in ads for housing, employment and credit.

For at least the last four years, lawmakers have introduced bills that aim to tackle possible algorithmic discrimination. In 2019, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.) introduced one measure, the Algorithmic Accountability Act, which would have required companies to study whether their algorithms pose risks to privacy, as well as whether they may result in inaccurate, unfair or discriminatory decisions.

In 2021, Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Rep. Doris Matsui (CA-06) unveiled the Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act of 2021, which would have prohibited online platforms from deploying algorithms that discriminate based on protected characteristics.

On Friday, Markey praised the White House's executive order.

“If we are going to address discrimination today, we have to open the hood on Big Tech,” Markey stated. “We cannot allow Big Tech to operate computer code without a code of conduct.”

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