Congressional Effort to Regulate Internet Algorithms May Impact Efforts that Support Reproductive Rights
Technology Policy Brief #61 | By: Mindy Spatt | July 6, 2022
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According to a US Surgeon General’s advisory, online misinformation is dangerous to our health. Abortion advocates agree. So does my pregnant daughter whose Tik Tok and Instagram are filled with horror stories of premature births and preeclampsia that just exacerbate the normal anxieties that come with being pregnant. According to a recent LA Times article she is not alone. The Times interviewed pregnant women about their social media use and found that “Across the country and around the world, pregnant women are finding themselves pummeled on social media with video after video about the most terrifying aspects of pregnancy”.
Algorithms, those mysterious inner workings that enable Facebook, Google and other online companies to relentlessly target us with content and ads based on our past searches and activities, are increasingly the determinants of what we see on our phones, tablets and computers. And it’s gone beyond just selling products.
Knowing you are pregnant algorithms send you not only diaper sales but also but also disaster stories. Knowing you are house hunting, algorithms send you apartments and houses, but also likely contribute to redlining. Advocates for marginalized communities say algorithms are impacting access to housing and jobs by, for example, directing people of color to certain neighborhoods or professions.
To combat some of these issues, Representative Yvette D. Clarke, D-N.Y., with U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J., have introduced the Algorithmic Accountability Act of 2022, which they describe as “a landmark bill to bring new transparency and oversight of software, algorithms and other automated systems that are used to make critical decisions about nearly every aspect of Americans’ lives.”
The bill requires companies to conduct impact assessments for bias, effectiveness and other factors when using automated decision systems (algorithms) to determine what content they feed to users. It would also make it illegal for platforms to segregate or discriminate in their treatment of data on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender identity, religious belief, sexual orientation, disability status, immigration status, and other categories.
The effort is supported by numerous established nonprofit advocacy organizations including the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC), Consumer Reports, Public Knowledge and Color of Change.
Arisha Hatch, Vice President and Chief of Campaigns at Color of Change, said “When bias in algorithms goes unchecked, Black people are subjected to discrimination in healthcare, housing, education, and employment — impacting nearly all parts of our lives. In order to reduce the impact of this bias, Big Tech and their operations must proactively detect and address discrimination.” She added that “Companies conducting their own audits is a first step but prevention will be key.”
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It is hard to imagine that the bill won’t face stiff opposition. Algorithms are at the core of every profitable digital platform. And while critics may say this legislation doesn’t go far enough it is likely to encounter strict opposition from Facebook, Google and other companies that have vociferously fought any sort of public accountability.
The shady data broker industry, now estimated to be raking in about $200 billion annually from information gleaned from our phones, searches and social media posts, surely doesn’t want to see anything change.
While Public Knowledge supports the bill its’ blog posts note that privacy protections are equally important, perhaps even more so, since ultimately the less that data is collected the less that data can be misused.
That is certainly the case as the battle over abortion access is increasingly moving online. In post-Roe America patients needing abortions in states where it is illegal will have no place other than the Internet to go to find services and access doctors and medication. That data could result in prosecution of both patient and doctor in some states.
Abortion foes have taken advantage of algorithms in the past to push their fake Pregnancy Crisis Centers to pop up when the user is actually searching for an abortion provider. Google now says these ads will be flagged to note that they don’t provide abortions but activists are saying they will remain vigilant. And we can assume the pregnancy center ads are just as unwanted by someone seeking an abortion as the pregnancy horror stories are by my daughter.
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Learn more: For Pregnant Women, the Internet Can Be a Nightmare By BRIAN CONTRERAS, May 25, 2022 https://www.latimes.com/business/technology/story/2022-05-25/for-pregnant-women-the-internet-can-be-a-nightmare
Cataloging the Harms of Algorithmic Decision Making By Lisa Macpherson and Antoine Prince Albert III, March 9, 2022