ACLU tells feds: Watch online discrimination

Companies that target certain people based on their online behavior could be practicing a form of discrimination, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warned on Monday.

Some businesses look at massive amounts of information about what people do on the Internet to target ads to one group over another, which the ACLU told the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) “has the potential to significantly reinforce existing economic disparities between racial groups."

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“Because decisions about which advertisements to display are in some cases based on data about race or factors closely linked to race, we are in danger of segregating the consumer experience on the Web,” ACLU officials told FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez in a formal filing.

Both the FTC and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should investigate whether or not companies are violating the rules by using new forms of discrimination, the civil liberties group said.

“They should act now in order to prevent discrimination from contaminating access to credit in the digital realm,” the ACLU urged. 

The increasing ability to aggregate vast amounts of data about consumers — a phenomenon known as “big data” — can help companies better target their advertisements and resources.

Regulators have also warned about the potential for discrimination, however. For instance, a company could use other indicators that are tied with — but different from — race or ethnicity in order to give some people a cheaper price, in a way that might otherwise be illegal.

The FTC has begun to ramp up its oversight of big data. Earlier this year, the agency asked Congress to pass a series of new laws to protect people from possible profiling based on their activities and buying habits.