Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a kingdom ruled by tech companies. These companies had created algorithms to assist in decision-making, from serving ads to choosing what news to show their users. The people of the kingdom believed these automated systems were fair and unbiased.
One day, a group of researchers discovered that Facebook’s ad-delivery system sent ads to users based on stereotypes. The people were shocked to learn that they were being treated unfairly because of their race, religion, sex, or genetic information. The researchers from Northeastern University, the University of Southern California, and the advocacy group Upturn sounded the alarm, but the tech companies dismissed their findings.
The people of the kingdom became increasingly concerned and went to their ruler, President Joe Biden, to seek justice. The President issued an executive order that directed federal agencies to combat algorithmic discrimination and protect the public from unjustified different treatment.
The tech companies didn’t like this one bit. They had grown accustomed to their power and control, and they didn’t want anyone interfering. But President Biden was determined to put a stop to the algorithmic discrimination that was fueling bias.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sued Facebook, alleging that its ad-delivery system discriminates based on characteristics like race and gender. Facebook settled that complaint by agreeing to roll out a new ad targeting system that would rely on machine learning to curb discrimination in ads for housing, employment, and credit.
For at least four years, lawmakers had been introducing bills to tackle algorithmic discrimination, but the tech companies had lobbied hard against them. The Algorithmic Accountability Act and the Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act of 2021 would have required companies to study whether their algorithms posed risks to privacy, and whether they may result in inaccurate, unfair, or discriminatory decisions.
Senator Ed Markey praised the White House’s executive order, saying that “we cannot allow Big Tech to operate computer code without a code of conduct.”
And so, the people of the kingdom lived happily ever after, knowing that their ruler was looking out for them and protecting them from algorithmic discrimination. The tech companies eventually learned that they couldn’t operate without accountability and transparency, and they became better stewards of the algorithms that shaped the world around them.