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Senate bill would require tech companies to police their algorithms for bias

Automated decision systems would have to be tested for accuracy, fairness, discrimination, privacy and security under the bill.

Close-Up Of Magnifying Glass Laptop Keyboard
Sebastian Leesch / EyeEm

US lawmakers on Wednesday proposed a bill that would require large tech companies to review and correct any discriminatory biases detected in their algorithms.

Dubbed the Algorithmic Accountability Act of 2019, the bill would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to create regulations requiring companies to assess their automated decision-making systems for accuracy, fairness, bias, discrimination, privacy and security. The regulations would apply only to companies with an annual revenue of more than $50 billion already under the FTC's supervision.

"Computers are increasingly involved in the most important decisions affecting Americans' lives -- whether or not someone can buy a home, get a job or even go to jail," Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden said in a statement. "But instead of eliminating bias, too often these algorithms depend on biased assumptions or data that can actually reinforce discrimination against women and people of color."

The proposal comes as large tech companies grapple with accusations of racial, gender and political bias. It also underscores the growing bipartisan concern in Washington of large tech companies' size and influence.

The announcement cited a recent Department of Housing and Urban Development charge against Facebook that accused the social networking giant of violating the Fair Housing Act through targeted ads.

The bill, also backed by Democrats Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Yvette Clarke, has been endorsed by tech and civil rights groups such as Data on Black Lives, the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition.

"As long as humans are biased, algorithms will be biased too," the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law said in a statement. "This bill will force companies to reckon with that reality."

The Internet Association trade group, which represents Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and other major tech companies, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.