The ACLU Is Suing For The Right To Uncover Online Discrimination
Fast Company - 07/06/2016
In December, three Harvard researchers released a paper that showed the vacation rental site Airbnb can be a racist place, where people with black-sounding names like Lakisha or Rasheed have a harder time getting a booking than a Brent or Kristen.
How did they uncover this bias? They set up 20 fake profiles and sent housing requests to more than 6,000 hosts around the country and simply tallied the replies.
What the researchers found was something that Airbnb users of color may have had a hunch about before. But they might have had a hard time proving it, because they could only know their own experience. It took a planned research study that allowed direct comparisons to ferret out this happening. Now Airbnb’s CEO has vowed to fight racism on its platform.
As almost all of our important life transactions move online, studies like this have great value—especially as algorithms and software make more automated decisions that, unlike the Airbnb example, can be biased in ways that are harder to examine. This is especially important in areas like housing or employment that are regulated by federal law that bans racial and other kinds of discrimination on the part of employers or developers.
But technically, many studies where outsiders set up fake profiles or automatically extract data from a site are technically against the law—and the ACLU is now suing on behalf of several academic researchers and journalists to make these “audits” legal.