Designing Against Discrimination in Online Markets

58 Pages Posted: 12 Dec 2017 Last revised: 10 Jul 2020

See all articles by Karen Levy

Karen Levy

Cornell University

Solon Barocas

Microsoft Research; Cornell University

Date Written: December 8, 2017


Platforms that connect users to one another have flourished online in domains as diverse as transportation, employment, dating, and housing. When users interact on these platforms, their behavior may be influenced by preexisting biases, including tendencies to discriminate along the lines of race, gender, and other protected characteristics. In aggregate, such user behavior may result in systematic inequities in the treatment of different groups. While there is uncertainty about whether platforms bear legal liability for the discriminatory conduct of their users, platforms necessarily exercise a great deal of control over how users’ encounters are structured—including who is matched with whom for various forms of exchange, what information users have about one another during their interactions, and how indicators of reliability and reputation are made salient, among many other features. Platforms cannot divest themselves of this power; even choices made without explicit regard for discrimination can affect how vulnerable users are to bias. This Article analyzes ten categories of design and policy choices through which platforms may make themselves more or less conducive to discrimination by users. In so doing, it offers a comprehensive account of the complex ways platforms’ design choices might perpetuate, exacerbate, or alleviate discrimination in the contemporary economy.

Keywords: platforms, bias, discrimination, design, policy

JEL Classification: D63, J71, J46, O33, O35

Suggested Citation

Levy, Karen and Barocas, Solon and Barocas, Solon, Designing Against Discrimination in Online Markets (December 8, 2017). 32 Berkeley Technology Law Journal 1183 (2017), Available at SSRN:

Karen Levy (Contact Author)

Cornell University ( email )

Ithaca, NY 14853
United States

Solon Barocas

Microsoft Research

300 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10012
United States

Cornell University ( email )

Ithaca, NY 14853
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics