Senate Democrats press FTC to protect marginalized groups from marketplace discrimination

A group of seven Democratic and Democratic-caucusing senators sent a letter to Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Kahn on Wednesday calling on the agency to use “every tool at its disposal” to protect marginalized groups from discrimination in the marketplace.

The letter, sent by Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), largely focuses on the impact of technologies such as facial recognition and location data collection on minorities.

“We write to urge the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to use the full scope of its authority to protect members of Black communities, other communities of color and immigrant communities in the United States,” the senators wrote. “Individuals in these communities are uniquely vulnerable to threats from discriminatory online practices, biometric surveillance, consumer predation and anti-competitive behavior.”

The letter was first reported by Politico.

The senators pointed to a wide range of research showing that apparently neutral data collection practices and algorithmic technologies can have discriminatory effects.

They referenced reports indicating biases in housing advertisement delivery and reported U.S. government purchases of location data from a popular Muslim prayer and Quran app.

“As commercial and social activity continues to move online, these discriminatory and harmful data practices have realworld, lasting impacts,” the senators wrote.

The FTC acknowledged to the The Hill that it had received the letter but declined to provide further comment.

The senators also argued that the FTC should make racial justice a “core principle” when it considers antitrust decisions, citing research that shows market consolidation has contributed to a decline in minority-owned businesses.

“We agree that the FTC should move away from its traditional ‘value-neutral’ antitrust evaluation and instead move towards an approach that advances racial justice,” they wrote.

The group particularly took aim at facial recognition software, which they argued is capable of “fundamentally threatening” people’s expectation that they can appear in public without being identified.

The senators pointed to a 2019 National Institute of Standards and Technology study that showed facial recognition algorithms were up to 100 times more likely to misidentify Asian and African American faces compared to Caucasians. 

“Communities of color are already systematically subjected to over-surveillance, and research shows that private businesses have disproportionately deployed facial recognition technology in non-white neighborhoods,” the senators wrote.

Facial recognition software and other emerging technologies have been an increasing focus of civil rights groups.

The American Civil Liberties Union last year demanded that Amazon stop selling its facial recognition technology to the government after it obtained records showing the product’s marketing to law enforcement.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in September called for a moratorium on artificial intelligence systems that pose a risk to human rights.

Some lawmakers have looked to rein in companies’ data collection practices, with key members drafting competing data privacy bills.

A bipartisan proposal by Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who lead the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the Senate Commerce Committee’s ranking member, faces an uphill battle amid opposition from privacy hawks and business groups.

Meanwhile, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has circulated her own privacy proposal.

—Updated Thursday at 11:03 a.m.

Tags Artificial Intelligence Brian Schatz Ed Markey Ed Markey Elizabeth Warren facial recognition facial recognition Facial recognition system facial recognition technology Federal Trade Commission Federal Trade Commission Frank Pallone FTC Maria Cantwell racial discrimination Roger Wicker

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