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Washington, D.C.'s Attorney General Karl Racine is billing the legislation as groundbreaking and says he wants to prevent artificial intelligence from contributing to discrimination in areas like housing, lending and education.
Legislation that Washington, D.C.'s attorney general proposed this week seeks to shield district residents from discriminatory and biased computer algorithms, setting guidelines that companies and other organizations would need to follow when using the technology and imposing penalties on those that run afoul of the rules.
The proposal—which Attorney General Karl Racine's office described as the first comprehensive bill of its kind in the U.S.—would make it illegal for businesses and other organizations to use discriminatory algorithms in areas such as education, employment, housing, and with providing services like credit, health care, and insurance.
"Algorithmic decision-making computer programs have been convincingly proven to replicate and, worse, exacerbate racial and other illegal bias in critical services that all residents of the United States require,” Racine said in a statement.
He pointed to mortgage lending, auto financing, student loans, credit applications, health care and school admissions as examples of where these problems can arise.
"This so-called artificial intelligence is the engine of algorithms that are, in fact, far less smart than they are portrayed, and more discriminatory and unfair than big data wants you to know. Our legislation would end the myth of the intrinsic egalitarian nature of AI," Racine, a Democrat, added.
Racine sent a letter dated Dec. 8 to the D.C. council, submitting the legislation for consideration.
In general, algorithms like those the bill seeks to regulate automate decision making and make predictions about risk and with other factors based on large amounts of data. A concern is that biases baked into the data will lead to discriminatory or unfair outcomes.
The legislation aims to block the use of traits like race, sex and disability status in automated decisions in ways that are discriminatory. It would also require businesses to audit the algorithms they use, with an eye towards determining whether they show signs of troubling patterns of bias and to report their findings to the AG's office.
Additionally, companies would have to disclose to consumers how they use algorithms in decision making, what personal data they collect to feed into them and how that data is used. They'd also have to provide further information if using the algorithm results in an unfavorable decision for someone—for instance, a higher interest rate on a loan.
The bill calls for civil penalties of up to $10,000 for each violation of the guidelines.
"This legislation sends a message that in some of the most important areas of everyday life, D.C. will no longer allow technology to be used as a veil for unlawful discrimination," Cynthia Khoo, associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, said in a statement. The center was among several groups that partnered with Racine's office to come up with the legislation.
"Automated discrimination adds a new dimension to societal inequity and the law must recognize that if civil rights protections are to keep pace," Khoo added.
A number of other civil rights groups lined up in support of the legislation, including Color of Change (which also contributed to developing it), the American Civil Liberties Union, Washington Lawyers' Committee and Consumer Reports.
Also this week, the Data & Trust Alliance, a group that includes major corporations, said more than a dozen companies would adopt safeguards to prevent bias with algorithms used for workforce decisions, around issues like recruiting and pay. That group includes General Motors, IBM, Mastercard, Walmart and Meta (the rebrand of Facebook), among other companies.
The Data & Trust Alliance formed last year and says its goal is working on "responsible data and AI practices."
“Developed and used responsibly, these systems hold the promise of making our workforces more diverse, more inclusive, and ultimately more innovative," Doug McMillon, president and CEO of Walmart and chairman of Business Roundtable, said in a statement.
Bill Lucia is a senior editor for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.