ACLU sues US over law limiting data discrimination studies

The civil liberty group says that an anti-hacking law blocks research into algorithm-based racism and sexism.

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AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

It's no secret that algorithms can be biased against certain demographics, but the American Civil Liberties Union wants more proof -- and it's willing to go to court to get it. The organization has sued the US in the belief that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act prevents studies on algorithm-powered discrimination, allegedly violating free speech rights. As the Act makes it a crime to violate a website's terms of service, the ACLU claims, it's frequently impossible to comb through publicly available site data that would reveal racism, sexism or other biases in the code. That, in turn, hampers researchers and journalists (the ACLU is representing The Intercept's publisher in this case) who want to expose illegal behavior.

The ACLU certainly isn't the first to gripe about the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The law took effect in 1986, well before the internet hit the mainstream -- critics have long argued that it's too broad to account for the complexities of the modern online world. Many (including House Representatives Darrell Issa and Jared Polis) have argued that activist and RSS pioneer Aaron Swartz would still be alive if the CFAA hadn't permitted severe charges against him for downloading masses of academic journals.

In a sense, the civil liberties group is really just trying to get proposed reforms back in gear. A law that would exempt terms of service violations from the act, Aaron's Law, has been stuck in committee for years (Oracle allegedly stalled it to protect its interests). The ACLU's case wouldn't necessarily revive the law if successful, but it could have a similar effect. You could safely break terms of service so long as there's a legal reason for it, whether that involves discrimination research or something similarly innocuous.

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