In recent years, the idea of algorithmic bias – or completely real or usually conspiratorial—Is something that pops up in conversations from specialized Internet groups and White House officials equal. And now, investigators and tech journalists are legal free to explore these problems to your heart’s content – at least reasonably. After almost a year battle between the ACLU and Attorney General William Barr, a federal court eventually ruled that researching sites to discover their biases is not a violation of the Computer Fraud And Abuse Act or CFAA.
In a statement, an ACLU lawyer, Esha Bhandari, said the decision will help “ensure that companies can be held liable for violations of civil rights in the digital age”.
“Researchers who test online platforms for discriminatory and breaching data practices provide a public service,” she added. “They shouldn’t fear federal prosecution for running the 21st-century equivalent of anti-discrimination audit tests.”
Since last May, the ACLU goes from toe to toe with the AG on behalf of “academics, researchers, and journalists,” who may have said, violating a platform or a site’s Terms of Service as part of their investigation. Under CFAA, something like scraping a site’s publicly available information, creating multiple accounts, or submitting false information exceeds “authorized access” by law, which can technically be construed as a criminal offense.
In other words, as a researcher wanted to investigate whether a site discriminated against users to the left or right of the political spectrum (or users who are one race versus the other) who technically have to violate the site and CFAA terms of service to do so.
To be honest, there are some good reasons that these sites contain provisions against things like multiple accounts per user, ingrained in their Terms of Service. Twitter, for example adopted this provision to keep spam on its platform low, like so Facebook. And while the threat of a possible consequence certainly hasn’t stopped scammers from buying, sell and hoard Multiple accounts at any given time, the threat of a CFAA-based crackdown has certainly made researchers pause in the past – and keep them from monitoring and investigating the sites and services they investigate, the ACLU said.
This was the same statement made by John Bates, judge of the DC area last weekend, who reached it the decision that a good reading of the CFAA the majority of academic research – even if that research conflicts a Site’s Terms of Service.
It is still unclear whether the government plans to contest the ruling or whether private companies will make their own arguments against it. LinkedIn this month tried to appeal his own CFAA ruling, which found that third party analysis company hiQ was in fact not inconsistent with CFAA by scraping publicly available data on its site. According to the Bates ruling, a company like LinkedIn is still free to remove these companies – or individual researchers – from their network, but they cannot use a federal mandate to do so.