Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mark Warner (D-VA), Edward Markey (D-MA), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) sent a letter to major tech conglomerate, Alphabet Inc., the parent company of YouTube and Google, urging them to conduct a racial equity audit and to use the investigation and recommendations to make the company and its products safer for Black people.
For years, civil and digital rights organizations and researchers have raised concerns about racial bias within technology and how it perpetuates discriminatory harms on marginalized communities. For instance, according to Safiya Noble’s 2018 book Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, Google’s Cloud Vision image recognition tool labeled images of a thermometer held by light-skinned people as an “electronic device” while labeling them as a “gun” when held by dark-skinned people.
“We are concerned algorithms will rely on data that reinforces negative stereotypes and either exclude people from seeing ads for housing, employment, credit, and education or show only predatory opportunities,” the Senators wrote in a letter to Alphabet Inc. “We are also troubled to hear that Google developers did not listen to both internal and external advocates who warned that a new app to identify skin conditions did not use a sufficiently diverse training dataset to train and thus would not be effective on people with dark skin. We can no longer rely on promises and need Alphabet to take affirmative steps to protect Black people and other people of color. A racial equity audit is long overdue.”
The Senators continued, “As Congress and the federal government do more to protect communities of color from civil rights violations online, companies need to do their part by examining areas for improvement and ensuring their workplaces are safe for members of these communities. Alphabet must work with an outside and independent auditing team with civil rights and legal expertise to identify intervention points for better equitable practices and policies at your company to lay the groundwork for equitable technology development and deployment. We need more than quick fixes or cosmetic changes and we encourage you to work with civil rights groups who have developed a framework to guide tech companies on how to conduct racial equity audits.”
“It is past due that Google makes the structural changes necessary to eradicate the racism ingrained in their business practices and on their platform,'' said Rashad Robinson, President of Color Of Change. “Big Tech must face the consequences for disregarding racial equity and continuing to exploit Black communities and employees. In order to adequately address racial bias in technology, Alphabet Inc. must conduct a comprehensive racial equity audit using vetted framework that has been proven to produce real solutions, rather than a framework developed by compromised consultants and corporate law firms. Real and long-term accountability starts with an independent racial equity audit combined with legislative action — strong antitrust reform, privacy legislation, and algorithmic accountability are our greatest legislative tools in reducing Big Tech’s damage to Black communities while they conduct an effective audit of every policy and protocol. Color Of Change commends Senators Booker, Wyden, Warner, Blumenthal and Markey in their efforts to rein in the power of the tech industry. We look forward to continuing our work with Congress to hold Big Tech accountable and ensure that the safety of Black communities is a priority on and offline."
Full text of the letter can be viewed here.
Below are highlights on Booker's record on tech accountability:
In March of this year, Booker along with Senators Warren, Wyden, Markey, Van Hollen, and Blumenthal sent a letter requesting information from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) about its oversight authority and regulatory history with regard to tenant screening technology companies, which approximately 90% of landlords use for reviewing income and employment history, eviction history, and criminal background to make decisions about whether to rent to a potential tenant.
In 2019, Booker partnered with Senator Wyden to survey 39 federal law-enforcement agencies about their use of facial recognition technology, and what policies, if any, they have installed to prevent abuse, misuse and discrimination. That same month he also joined Senators in requesting the GAO study commercial and government uses of facial recognition technology, and examine what safeguards companies and law enforcement have implemented to prevent misuse and discrimination based on race, gender and age.
In October 2018, Senator Booker secured language in the FAA Authorization Act requiring the TSA to report to Congress on methods to eliminate bias on race, gender and age as TSA begins deployment of facial recognition technology for domestic flights.
In 2018, Booker secured a commitment from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg -- for the first time -- to conduct a civil rights audit at Facebook. Among other things the audit is meant to address the algorithmic biases on Facebook's platforms.
Booker was one of the first lawmakers to call for increased antitrust scrutiny of major tech companies and he has consistently fought to ensure that extant discrimination and bias in our society does not become augmented and automated in the future.