Third Party & Independents Archives

​The ACLU & the Freedom to Fool Websites With Bots

The American Civil Liberties Union is pushing the boundaries of data and research in a lawsuit that they claim is all about biased algorithms. That’s right. Algorithms.

Sandvig v Sessions revolves around the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) which is a piece of legislation born in the mid-80’s and was originally meant to protect government computers from unauthorized access. Needless to say, the CFAA has been amended multiple times with the most recent case being in 2008. And it has expanded to include most devices - including cell phones.

A small group of researchers at First Look Media - which runs The Intercept - do research on bias at certain websites by using bots and fake accounts to split test the response from financial, housing and employment websites apparently. A bot applies for housing as a caucasian. Then they change the bot's racial profile and see how the response of the website changes. Or the bot applies for a job, and then they change the gender and observe the results.

Or at least this is what they want to do, but are afraid of running afoul of the CFAA, by not complying with the websites' terms of service. So in steps the ACLU to move the case through the courts and force a SCOTUS decision on the CFAA. Or get Congress to change the legislation. And in D.C. federal court, it appears that the crusaders against biased algorithms have won a temporary victory. At the ACLU's website they write:

Judge John Bates, finding that the CFAA bars providing inaccurate information to websites, ruled that two plaintiffs can proceed on their claim that criminalizing such activity violates their free speech rights.

In his ruling, Judge Bates wrote that under the government's interpretation, "the CFAA threatens to burden a great deal of expressive activity, even on publicly accessible websites--which brings the First Amendment into play."

As Facebook faces public anger and Congressional interest that may lead to enquiries, it appears that we are barely entering the age of litigation regarding Freedom of Expression and the internet. In other words, the question in this case becomes: do the researchers at First Look Media have the right to fool certain websites' algorithms with bots and dummy accounts because they are conducting research? Rather than getting voters to sleepwalk to polling stations in Michigan and Pennsylvania and Manchurian-like vote for Donald Trump? Which as everyone knows is evil.

If bots and dummy accounts are the rhetorical tools of freedom-loving researchers, do the algorithms created by the evil capitalists behind housing or employment websites enjoy the same freedoms then? It would seem that the academic researchers who are the plaintiffs in this case would have to agree with that, and would probably say they already enjoy those freedoms.

The problem is what happens if what is now a narrow academic field of research becomes a free for all where companies with any sort of web presence (which means 99.9% of all companies) will have to spend (even more in some cases) on diversity consultants to ensure that they aren't sued out of business for having or appearing to have biased algorithms. That may not be very far at all in the future. David Hogg, here's an opportunity for you. Start a GoFundMe campaign or a KickStarter campaign. Raise a nice 6-figure sum. Hire some of those academics, and a few lawyers, and go after every website you possibly can. You David Hogg, can do the posing and accusing on CNN. It could be a gold mine!

You might first want to wait until SCOTUS rules on this one, however.

Posted by AllardK at April 4, 2018 5:47 PM
Comment #426023

If algorithms are being used to get around the laws, then what they’re doing is illegal and those companies can be prosecuted.

If you don’t want to be regarded as the piece of sh1t that you obviously are, then quit telling David Hogg what he should be doing, DirT.

I don’t think you’re going to get much of a response on an article so technical from the zombies who post here.

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