The steady drumbeat of legislation forcing companies to audit algorithms they supply or use is getting stronger. The latest example comes from Washington, D.C., where Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and the district's Attorney General Karl Racine introduced a bill on Thursday aiming to protect people from discriminatory decisions made by algorithmic tech.
D.C.’s Stop Discrimination by Algorithms Act of 2021 runs through a litany of potential requirements for entities using algorithmic systems to determine eligibility for employment or things like access to credit, housing or loans. “This act seeks to protect individuals and classes of individuals from the harm that results when algorithmic decision-making processes operate without transparency, rely on protected traits and other personal data that are correlated with those traits, or disproportionately limit access to and information about important life opportunities,” according to the legislation.
If passed, the D.C. bill would prohibit use of algorithmic tech to determine eligibility based on someone’s race, color, religion, familial status, source of income or other information in a way that discriminates against them “or otherwise makes important life opportunities unavailable to an individual or class of individuals.”
It also would demand entities like data brokers or technology and service providers conduct audits of algorithmic systems they use or provide to determine eligibility. Notably, audits would require the data employed to train an eligibility algorithm as well as the algorithm itself, in addition to the data used to make an eligibility decision and where that data comes from. The bill also calls for annual impact assessments of those systems.
Yes, there would be penalties for violators. Not only could the AG bring civil penalties of “not more than $10,000 for each violation,” but individuals could bring their own civil actions.
D.C.’s detailed bill stands in contrast with a slim New York City law requiring audits of algorithmic hiring technologies that passed recently but provides little detail on what an audit should entail.