The internet is one of the most profound advancements in history. The technology revolution has created new opportunities for economic empowerment, entrepreneurship, education, health care, civic and social engagement. Internet technology has also made it possible for previously marginalized groups to participate as entrepreneurs and creators of innovative products and services in the tech industry in larger numbers than any other industry in history.
The lighter touch regulation of the tech industry has spurred innovation that makes the internet a fertile ground of unlimited potential. Less regulation of the tech industry has lowered some of the traditional barriers for women and minorities to become entrepreneurs, who are now creating relevant and meaningful products and services in the tech industry.
However, the acts and omissions of big tech companies make it necessary to create legislation to close the gaps in consumer protection, effectively protect our personal data, and defend our democracy.
Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and Facebook’s dealings with Cambridge Analytica, the political firm hired by the 2016 Trump campaign that harvested the personal data of more than 87 million Facebook users for political targeting, have awakened American consumers to the threat that the lack of internet legislation poses to the safeguard of our democracy and personal data. As the nation prepares to vote in the 2018 midterm elections, congressional leadership has done little to nothing to protect our democracy — most especially to address the continued cyberattacks by Russia and other countries on our nation’s democracy through Facebook and other online mechanisms.
Further, online advertising platforms, search engines like Google and social media platforms such as Facebook have been reported to practice algorithmic bias by tracking consumers’ profiles based on their zip codes, online preferences for goods and services, and public opinions. The results of this tracking have led to predictive algorithms that deliberately exclude or target advertising and online search results to certain groups, particularly for housing, suitability for employment and credit, insurance, educational opportunities, and public accommodations.
As consumers, we understand the threat posed by unaccountable tech companies that have shown little, if any, regard for our privacy or civil rights. We realize that tech companies’ routine practices of data mining our personal information contained in emails, online search selections and online connections with family, friends and associates has breached our privacy and left us vulnerable to predictive algorithms that deliver information and targeted marketing to us based on inferences about our lifestyles, voting behavior, friends and acquaintances.
We also know that the algorithms used by big tech companies contribute to racial profiling and the systemic and institutional racism and discrimination that makes minorities and other marginalized groups the most vulnerable victims to these algorithms’ ability to decrease opportunities for employment, housing, credit, education and health care — which harms the economic wealth and well-being of our communities.
Historically, when consumers have been subject to exploitative practices of large-scale industries, Congress stepped in to protect us from these abuses. When corporations harmed the environment with pollutants to our air, land and waterways, Congress passed legislation to constrain environmental degradation for commercial gain. When banking and financial institutions abused and discriminated against consumers in the housing and lending markets, Congress passed laws to stop such abuses. When manufacturers produced consumer products and foods that contained dangerous substances and ingredients that are harmful to our health, Congress forced them into transparency by revealing the full list of ingredients and components or eliminating the injurious substances.
As America becomes increasingly more reliant on a digital economy, Congress must overcome its gridlock and move forward with an equally aggressive effort to come to radical consensus on internet openness and grapple with negotiating bipartisan legislation that will protect our civil rights and consumers’ privacy and data online.
Congress must also ensure that our democracy is not destroyed by its lack of action. One of the most vital responsibilities of each member of Congress is embodied in their oath to defend our nation against all enemies. As recent revelations of imminent threats to our democracy at the hands of foreign interference have become apparent, Congress must put aside obstructionism and partisan politics and step up as a unified body to create internet legislation that protects our civil rights, safeguards our online privacy and defends American democracy.
Melanie L. Campbell is president & CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Joycelyn Tate is the senior technology policy adviser for the Black Women’s Roundtable.
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