Tech Regulation Will Increasingly Be Driven Through the Prism of “Algorithmic Fairness”

by on November 6, 2022 · 0 comments

We are entering a new era for technology policy in which many pundits and policymakers will use “algorithmic fairness” as a universal Get Out of Jail Free card when they push for new regulations on digital speech and innovation. Proposals to regulate things like “online safety,” “hate speech,” “disinformation,” and “bias” among other things often raise thorny definitional questions because of their highly subjective nature. In the United States, efforts by government to control these things will often trigger judicial scrutiny, too, because restraints on speech violate the First Amendment. Proponents of prior restraint or even ex post punishments understand this reality and want to get around it. Thus, in an effort to avoid constitutional scrutiny and lengthy court battles, they are engaged in a rebranding effort and seeking to push their regulatory agendas through a techno-panicky prism of “algorithmic fairness” or “algorithmic justice.”

Hey, who could possibly be against FAIRNESS and JUSTICE? Of course, the devil is always in the details as Neil Chilson and I discuss in our new paper for the The Federalist Society and Regulatory Transparency Project on, “The Coming Onslaught of ‘Algorithmic Fairness’ Regulations.” We document how federal and state policymakers from both parties are currently considering a variety of new mandates for artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and automated systems that, if imposed, “would thunder through our economy with one of the most significant expansions of economic and social regulation – and the power of the administrative state – in recent history.”

We note how, at the federal level, bills are being floated with titles like the “Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act” and the “Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act,” which would introduce far-reaching regulations requiring AI innovators to reveal more about how their algorithms work or even hold them liable if their algorithms are thought to be amplifying hateful or extremist content. Other proposed measures like the “Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act” and the “Online Consumer Protection Act” would demand greater algorithmic transparency as it relates to social media content moderation policies and procedures. Finally, measures like the “Kids Online Safety Act” would require audits of algorithmic recommendation systems that supposed targeted or harmed children. Algorithmic regulation is also creeping into proposed privacy regulations, such as the “American Data Protection and Privacy Act of 2022.”

And then there are all the state laws–many of which have been pushed by conservatives–that would mandate “algorithmic transparency” for social media content moderation in the name of countering supposed viewpoint bias. Bills in Florida and Texas take this approach. Meanwhile, conservatives in Congress Senator Josh Hawley’s (R-MO) push for bills like the “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act” that requires large tech companies undergo external audits proving that their algorithms and content-moderation techniques are politically unbiased. It’s an open invitation to regulators and trial lawyers to massively regulate technology and speech under the guise of “algorithmic fairness.” Countless left-leaning law professors and European officials have already proposed a comprehensive algorithmic audit apparatus to regulate innovators in every sector.

It’s the rise of the Code Cops. If we continue down this path, it ends with a complete rejection of the permissionless innovation ethos that made America’s information technology sector a global powerhouse. Instead, we’ll be stuck with the very worst type of “Mother, May I” precautionary principle-based regulatory regime that will be imposing the equivalent of occupational licensing requirements for coders.

If code is speech, algorithms are as well. Defenders of innovation freedom need to step up and prepare for the fight to come. [See my earlier essay, “AI Eats the World: Preparing for the Computational Revolution and the Policy Debates Ahead.”] Chilson and I outline the broad contours of the battle for freedom of speech and the freedom to innovation that is brewing. It will be the most important technology policy issue of the next ten years. I hope you take the time to read our new essay and understand why. And below you will find a few dozen more essay on the same topic if you’d like to dig even deeper.

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