Taming the Golem: Challenges of Ethical Algorithmic Decision Making

36 Pages Posted: 6 Jun 2017

See all articles by Omer Tene

Omer Tene

International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP)

Jules Polonetsky

Future of Privacy Forum

Date Written: June 5, 2017


The prospect of digital manipulation on major online platforms has reached fever pitch in the last election cycle in the United States. Jonathan Zittrain’s concern about “digital gerrymandering” has found resonance in reports, which were resoundingly denied by Facebook, of the company’s alleged editing content to tone down conservative voices. At the start of the election cycle, critics blasted Facebook for allegedly injecting editorial bias into an apparently neutral content generator, its “Trending Topics” feature. Immediately after the election, when the extent of dissemination of “fake news” through social media became known, commentators chastised Facebook for not proactively policing user generated content to block and remove untrustworthy information. Which one is it then? Should Facebook have deployed policy directed technologies or should its content algorithm have remained policy neutral?

This article examines the potential for bias and discrimination in automated algorithmic decision making. As a group of commentators recently asserted, “The accountability mechanisms and legal standards that govern such decision processes have not kept pace with technology.” Yet the article rejects an approach that depicts every algorithmic process as a “black box,” which is inevitably plagued by bias and potential injustice. While recognizing that algorithms are manmade artifacts written and edited by humans in order to code decision making processes, the article argues that a distinction should be drawn between “policy neutral algorithms,” which lack an active editorial hand, and “policy directed algorithms,” which are intentionally framed to pursue a designer’s policy agenda.

Policy neutral algorithms could in some cases reflect existing entrenched societal biases and historic inequities. Companies, in turn, can choose to fix their results through active social engineering. For example, after facing controversy in light of an algorithmic determination to not offer same-day delivery in low-income neighborhoods, Amazon has nevertheless recently decided to offer the services in order to pursue an agenda of equal opportunity. Recognizing that its decision making process, which was based on logistical factors and expected demand, had the effect of accentuating prevailing social inequality, Amazon chose to level the playing field.

Policy directed algorithms are purposely engineered to correct for apparent bias and discrimination or intentionally designed to advance a predefined policy agenda. In this case, it is essential that companies provide transparency about their active pursuit of editorial policies. For example, if a search engine decides to scrub search results clean of apparent bias and discrimination, it should let users know they are seeing a manicured version of the world. If a service optimizes results for financial motives without alerting users, it risks violating FTC standards for disclosure. So too should service providers consider themselves obligated to prominently disclose important criteria that reflect an unexpected policy agenda. The transparency called for is not one based on revealing source code, but rather public accountability about the editorial nature of the algorithm.

The article addresses questions surrounding the boundaries of responsibility for algorithmic fairness, and analyzes a series of case studies under the proposed framework.

Keywords: privacy, data protection, algorithmic decision making, algorithms, robotics, artificial intelligence, ethics

JEL Classification: K10, K23

Suggested Citation

Tene, Omer and Polonetsky, Jules, Taming the Golem: Challenges of Ethical Algorithmic Decision Making (June 5, 2017). North Carolina Journal of Law and Technology, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2981466

Omer Tene (Contact Author)

International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) ( email )

Pease International Tradeport
75 Rochester Ave., Suite 4
Portsmouth, NH 03801
United States

Jules Polonetsky

Future of Privacy Forum ( email )

United States

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