In a major victory for civil liberties and civil rights enforcement during the digital age, a federal court has ruled that research aimed at uncovering whether online algorithms result in racial, gender, or other discrimination does not violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). 
ACLU


© NurPhoto via Getty Images | FEDERAL COURT RULES ‘BIG DATA’ DISCRIMINATION STUDIES DO NOT VIOLATE FEDERAL ANTI-HACKING LAW
The first-of-its-kind ruling comes in a lawsuit, Sandvig v. Barr, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of academic researchers, computer scientists, and journalists who wish to investigate companies’ online practices.
“This decision helps ensure companies can be held accountable for civil rights violations in the digital era,” said Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “Researchers who test online platforms for discriminatory and rights-violating data practices perform a public service. They should not fear federal prosecution for conducting the 21st-century equivalent of anti-discrimination audit testing.”
The ACLU challenged a provision of the CFAA that the government argues makes it a crime to violate a website’s terms of service. Those terms, which are unilaterally set by individual sites and can change at any time, often prohibit researchers and journalists from creating tester online identities or recording what content is served up to those identities. These practices were used by, for example, investigative journalists who exposed that advertisers were using Facebook’s ad-targeting algorithm to exclude users from receiving the job, housing, or credit ads based on race, gender, age, or other classes protected from discrimination in federal and state civil rights laws.
The court rejected the government’s arguments that the CFAA criminalizes terms-of-service violations, and ruled that the research at the question, in this case, could proceed without the threat of federal prosecution under that law.

This article was originally published in ACLU.
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