Matsui, Markey Introduce Legislation to Combat Harmful Algorithms and Create New Online Transparency Regime

Legislation would also create an inter-agency task force to examine use of discriminatory algorithms in the education, healthcare, housing, and financial sectors

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congresswoman Doris Matsui (CA-06) and Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA) introduced the Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act of 2021 to prohibit harmful algorithms, increase transparency into websites’ content amplification and moderation practices, and commission a cross-government investigation into discriminatory algorithmic processes throughout the economy.

Algorithms are the automated systems built into the infrastructure of a platform that determine what content users see online. These automated decisions are often informed by a user’s online data or behavior, with or without a user’s knowledge. The legislation includes prohibitions against damaging algorithmic processes on popular websites, which have resulted in discrimination in a variety of contexts, including platforms delivering housing advertisements in ways that result in racial discrimination and excluding users of certain gender identities from viewing job advertisements.

“We stand amidst a reckoning on racial justice and discrimination, and we must seize the moment by doing all we can to root out prejudiced practices wherever they occur. As we work for justice and reform, it is crucial that we remain vigilant by demanding transparency from 21st century platforms about the algorithms that shape our online interactions,” said Congresswoman Matsui. “For far too many Americans, long-held biases and systemic injustices contained within certain algorithms are perpetuating inequalities and barriers to access. The Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act is an essential roadmap for digital justice to move us forward on the path to online equity and stop these discriminatory practices. I look forward to working with Senator Markey and urge all of my colleagues to join us in this effort.”

“As we work to eliminate injustice in our society, we cannot ignore the online ecosystem. It is time to open up Big Tech’s hood, enact strict prohibitions on harmful algorithms, and prioritize justice for communities who have long been discriminated against as we work toward platform accountability,” said Senator Markey. “Biased artificial intelligence systems have become embedded in the fabric of our digital society and they must be rooted out. I am proud to partner with Congresswoman Matsui on the Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act and I urge my colleagues in Congress to join this effort.”

The Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act would:

  • Prohibit algorithmic processes on online platforms that discriminate on the basis of race, age, gender, ability and other protected characteristics.
  • Establish a safety and effectiveness standard for algorithms, such that online platforms may not employ automated processes that harm users or fail to take reasonable steps to ensure algorithms achieve their intended purposes.
  • Require online platforms to describe to users in plain language the types of algorithmic processes they employ and the information they collect to power them. 
  • Require online platforms to maintain detailed records describing their algorithmic process for review by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in compliance with key privacy and data de-identification standards.
  • Require online platforms to publish annual public reports detailing their content moderation practices.
  • Create an interagency task force comprised of entities including the FTC, Department of Education, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Commerce, and Department of Justice, to investigate the discriminatory algorithmic processes employed in sectors across the economy.

Currently, algorithms—the systems that increase and decrease visibility of online content on social media platforms and other popular websites –function as black boxes, making it difficult for the public and policymakers to conduct oversight and ensure companies’ compliance with their own policies. While media investigations have uncovered evidence that Facebook failed to abide by its commitment to stop using its algorithms to recommend political groups to users ahead of the 2020 election, and that the company similarly failed to take down content from a dangerous conspiracy theorist who the platform previously banned, many more examples may never have been uncovered.

Problematic algorithmic processes do not merely operate on popular platforms that people use every day. Often unbeknownst to members of the public, companies involved in higher education, employment screening, financial services, and healthcare also use discriminatory systems of automation. The increasing use of artificial intelligence tools that pose harms to marginalized communities warrants a comprehensive review of these technologies and their potential for discriminatory outcomes.

Endorsers of the Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act include: Center for Digital Democracy, Color of Change, Common Sense Media, Consumer Reports, Free Press, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, National Hispanic Media Coalition, Public Citizen, and Public Knowledge.

"Big Tech’s problematic track record in failing to protect civil rights proves that we need swift legislation to protect Black people online,” said Arisha Hatch, Vice President and Chief of Campaigns at Color Of Change. “The Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act includes necessary provisions to prevent algorithmic discrimination. When Big Tech companies rely on discriminatory algorithms, they aren’t just profiting from surveillance  —  they are actively amplifying disinformation and allowing racially biased targeted advertising that reinforces structures that have exploited Black people for decades. In order to combat biased algorithms and demand accountability from corporate leaders who uphold and enable the harm of Black people online, we must see regulatory action from Congress. Color Of Change commends Senator Markey and Representative Doris Matsui's efforts in centering civil rights in tech policy legislation and we will continue to demand the federal regulation needed to ensure Black communities’ safety and build racial justice infrastructures online.”

“The Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act is an important first step in requiring platforms to take responsibility for their complex content algorithms,” said Sara Collins, Policy Counsel at Public Knowledge. “This bill goes well beyond providing mere transparency about how these algorithms work by requiring companies to verify that their algorithms are performing the way they are meant to perform, as well as by providing users with data portability. And instead of relying solely on governmental entities for enforcement, individuals are able to sue platforms for their discriminatory algorithms. This is the bold first step we need to hold platforms accountable for their algorithms.”

"Policymakers need to address discriminatory practices that for too long have evaded public scrutiny," said Nandita Sampath, Policy Analyst at Consumer Reports. "The Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act is an important proposal to tackle head on the issue of algorithmic bias. We look forward to continuing to work with the sponsors of the bill to seek out the most effective ways to uncover these biases and stop the harms." 

# # #