Democratic lawmakers take another stab at AI bias legislation

Democrats want to hold companies accountable for discriminatory algorithms in banking, housing and other sectors.

POOL New / reuters

Democrats in Congress on Thursday renewed a push to hold tech companies accountable for bias in their algorithms. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), along with House representative Yvette Clarke (D-NY) introduced an updated version of a bill that would require audits of AI systems used in areas such as finance, healthcare, housing, education and more. First introduced by Wyden in 2019, the Algorithmic Accountability Act has never passed the committee level in either the House or Senate.

“If someone decides not to rent you a house because of the color of your skin, that’s flat-out illegal discrimination. Using a flawed algorithm or software that results in discrimination and bias is just as bad. Our bill will pull back the curtain on the secret algorithms that can decide whether Americans get to see a doctor, rent a house or get into a school,” said Wyden in a press release.

A wave of studies found evidence of racial and gender bias in AI tools and automated systems used in everything from approving mortgages and credit cards to prescribing pain medication. Civil rights groups in recent years have lobbied Congress to hold companies accountable for flawed and biased algorithms.

The bill would require companies to perform an audit of their AI systems and report their findings to the Federal Trade Commission. It would also require the FTC to force companies to make high-profile AI decision making public. Under the bill, the FTC would create a public database where consumers can review critical decisions that have been automated by companies.

The legislation would require companies that use AI tools in “critical decision making” to evaluate the outcomes of such tools and regularly report their findings to the FTC. According to an analysis of the bill released by Wyden’s office, this includes any decisions by businesses that are related to the “cost, terms, or availability of education and vocational training, employment, essential utilities, family planning, financial services, healthcare, housing or lodging, legal services, or any other service, program, or opportunity that has a comparably legal or similarly significant effect on a consumer’s life as determined by the Commission through rulemaking.”

The bill has been endorsed by a handful of civil liberties and digital rights groups, including EPIC, Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), Fight for the Future, and others. “Color Of Change commends Sens. Wyden and Booker and Rep. Clarke for advancing racial justice equities in tech regulation. We hope Congress will pass this instrumental legislation,” said Arisha Hatch, Vice President of Color Of Change, in a statement.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill will next need to be reviewed and voted on by their relevant committees in Congress. The date for this vote has yet to be scheduled.

Engadget has reached out to the bill’s co-sponsors for further details on the legislation and its next steps in Congress, and will update when we hear back.