Act against data-driven bias, advocacy groups tell FTC

27 March 2023 00:00

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A coalition of advocacy groups and lawmakers urged the Federal Trade Commission to hold companies accountable as online harms against people of color and women proliferate.

The network of more than 30 groups, such as Free Press Action, OpenMic, MediaJustice, Facebook Users Union, the AFL-CIO and Common Cause, said they seek to defend against disinformation and surveillance campaigns that “deliberately target Black, Latinx, Asian Americans and Indigenous people, along with other communities of color.”

“There’s a lot of ways our data is being used to undermine our economic opportunities, whether that’s withholding housing advertisements to Black users online, or women not getting the same employment ads on Google products that men are getting. They’re based on algorithms, they’re based on data-driven discrimination,” said Yosef Getachew, democracy program director for Common Cause. He suggested the FTC can rely on its authorities to counter deceptive ads to address online harms.

At a briefing this month at the US Capitol where the advocacy groups gathered, Democratic Senator Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico said online algorithms mean companies profit more from lies and how many clicks their content gets, and the FTC should act.

“They should be reining them in more, but the FTC needs more rules. They need more power, they need more authority to be able to rein in the nonsense that we’re seeing from these entities as well. And I’m hoping that there can be a bipartisan effort to do this,” Luján said in an interview.

Luján told the groups he would work to hold companies accountable as chair of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Media and Broadband, which has jurisdiction over all communication sectors including the Internet, cable TV and radio.

“I’ve not seen a company that cares about doing a darn thing,” Luján said to the advocacy groups, saying he was going off-script.

Jessica González, co-CEO of Free Press Action, an advocacy group that promotes independent ownership of media platforms, said the Capitol meeting was to examine “the serious threats that online platforms pose to all of us and specifically the ways that people of color are being targeted with scams, fraud.”

Weaponized narratives targeting certain communities are amplified through the toxic business models of Big Tech and Big Media, the groups say. The advocacy groups endorsed a digital civil rights agenda and a “Disinfo Defense League Policy Platform” that calls for expanded FTC oversight.

The FTC should hear directly from communities affected by scams and fraud, but the agency is also under-resourced, González said.

Untrustworthy information is causing damage, especially in non-English language, Luján told attendees.

Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter agreed at the March 16 FTC meeting, saying, “There’s good reason to believe that non-English speakers receive fewer protections and investments in safety online than English speakers.”

“Studies do show that Hispanics are more likely to use leading social media sites and messaging apps than other groups, and that we spend more time on these platforms as compared to the general population,” Commissioner Alvaro Bedoya chimed in. “There are also indicators that non-English featured speakers are targeted with fraudulent ads.”

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