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Civil Rights Issue of 21st Century: Digital Inequality

What does the ’64 Civil Rights Act have to do with the Internet?

As with all things in our increasingly digitized and socially connected society — everything.

The fact that the values and principles that inform daily life externally are being ported into the online landscape presents new frontiers in the fight for civil rights and social justice. If the problem of the 20th century was the color line, according to W.E.B. DuBois, then the problem of the 21st could well be digital discrimination.

“Unfortunately, the Internet’s impact on civil rights has gone largely neglected to date,” said Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor.

Safiya Noble, at the University of California, Los Angeles, adds: “If the government is asking us to rely on digital resources, then we have to ask ourselves, ‘What is the code of ethics?’ ”

While the ’64 law was intended to end discrimination in public accommodations, schools and the workplace, the virtual commons that is the Internet is often a place where biased attitudes and outcomes are allowed to flourish, emerging research shows. Unequal access and outcomes occur when data about social media and buying habits and neighborhoods are used in a way that creates unfair bias the act was designed to eliminate.

Take the search terms “black” and “girl,” for example. At one point, Google search results rendered pornographic images when users input those terms, according to Noble, who has extensively studied the role of search in creating biased attitudes.

Why would “black” and “girl” be considered synonymous, Noble asked? It would make more sense to show pornographic results if the user also included “porn” or some term designed to render those kinds of results. Instead, Internet searches have revealed a bias about women, particularly black women, according to Noble’s research, that underscores “their lack of status in society.”

Unfair bias also shows up in data use.

“You have scoring algorithms and systems that can make predictions about people’s health conditions, predictions about their ranking and rating of individuals based on their consumer buying habits and also can make predictions like, ‘Don’t bother. This person is essentially what they call an advertising waste,’’ Citron says.

And most people likely don’t think twice about what happens after they comment on Facebook, post to Twitter or use other online apps.  With increasing frequency, the data is being used to profile.

“While big data can be used for great social good, it can also be used in ways that perpetuate social harms or render outcomes that have inequitable impacts, even when discrimination is not intended,” according to a May 2014 White House report, “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values.”

The World Privacy Forum had issued its own report, “The Scoring of America,” that found businesses are increasingly using algorithms and systems that can make predictions about people’s habits.

“New consumer scoring that uses elements that correlate with prohibited factors such as race can reintroduce discrimination and hide the effects behind a secret or proprietary screen that falls entirely outside of current consumer protection regulations,” the report says. “This is not acceptable.”

Most people don’t know about these scores, nor are there legal protections against them, according to Pam Dixon, the forum’s executive director.

Dixon says vulnerability-based marketing, redlining, and proxy credit scores are used to treat groups of people unfairly and target them based on data acquired online, then sold by data brokers. This is a form of “redlining,” a practice that isolates, denies or upcharges certain groups. Often these groups fall along racial and gender lines.

“Just as neighborhoods can serve as a proxy for racial or ethnic identity, there are new worries that big data technologies could be used to ‘digitally redline’ unwanted groups, either as customers, employees, tenants or recipients of credit,” the White House report says.

Evidence suggests location is used “as a proxy for a consumer’s ability to repay a debt,” according to the National Consumer Law Center. “For example, if the consumer is living in a ZIP code where the mortgage delinquency rates are climbing or always high, the chance for collection may be significantly less than for those in ZIP codes where the delinquency rate is relatively low and stable.”

The ’64 law paved the way for women to enter the workplace in droves, though it is generally regarded as a law that opened doors for minorities, namely African-Americans.

To that end, race plays a role in online interactions, according to a study by Ben Edelman at Harvard Business School. His test of Airbnb, a site that allows homeowners to turn their homes into hotels, sought to measure  “whether or not the Internet would live up to its non-discriminatory potential.”

The answer: No.

Edelman measured how would-be renters would react when hosts posted photo of themselves with the space they were renting. African-Americans were paid on average 10 percent less than white hosts for comparable living spaces, he found.

For its part, Airbnb officials say,  “our terms of service prohibit content that discriminates,” Airbnb says in a statement. “The data in this report is nearly 2-years-old and is from only one of the more than 35,000 cities where Airbnb hosts welcome guests into their homes. The authors made a number of subjective or inaccurate determinations when compiling their findings.”

Still, Edelman says his findings show a troubling pattern.

“The role of race is pretty deep in American economics, predates any of us, really,” Edelman says.

Contributing: Taryn Galbreath