U.S. lawmakers propose bill to fight bias in tech companies' algorithms

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(Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers proposed a bill on Wednesday that would require major tech companies to detect and remove any discriminatory biases embedded in their computer models, underscoring Washington’s growing interest in regulating Silicon Valley.

The bill, entitled the Algorithmic Accountability Act of 2019, would grant new power to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and force companies to study if race, gender or other biases underpin their technology. The rules would apply to companies with annual revenue above $50 million as well as to data brokers and businesses with over a million consumers’ data.

“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 Senator Ron Wyden said in a press release announcing the bill. “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 press release cited as examples a Reuters report that Inc had scrapped an automated recruiting engine it had found to be biased against women, and U.S. charges that Facebook Inc let advertisers discriminate by race in alleged violation of the Fair Housing Act.

Senator Cory Booker and Representative Yvette Clarke, both Democrats, joined Wyden in introducing the bill, which could face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“To hold algorithms to a higher standard than human decisions implies that automated decisions are inherently less trustworthy or more dangerous than human ones, which is not the case,” said Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based non-profit that includes industry representatives on its board.

“This would only serve to stigmatize and discourage AI use, which could reduce its beneficial social and economic impacts,” Castro said.

The Internet Association, which counts Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet Inc’s Google and other top tech companies as members, had no immediate comment.

Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in Las Vegas; Editing by Tom Brown