Civil society to U.S. FTC: fight for civil rights and privacy

On July 29, Access Now, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and other civil society organizations called on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to protect civil rights and privacy in online commerce. The letter urges the FTC to regulate unfair and deceptive practices, create an Office of Civil Rights, and increase enforcement against tech companies.

The algorithms and models that are being used in commercial data practices are reinforcing the structural racism and systemic bias that pervades our society, most notably in the employment, finance, housing, and education sectors. These practices are denying communities of color equal opportunity, amplifying disinformation and white supremacy, and exploiting people.

“We’ve known for years that, behind closed doors, online companies collect and process data in ways that harm and discriminate against people,” said Eric Null, U.S. Policy Manager at Access Now. “It’s time for the FTC to take bold action against these companies and practices, and show the world that the U.S. in fact does care about protecting people’s privacy and civil rights.”

The organizations ask the FTC to take immediate steps to stop unfair and deceptive practices through comprehensive federal regulations to address abuse of commercial data by tech companies. Left unattended, these companies will negatively affect equal opportunity, data protection, due process, transparency, data security, and corporate accountability.

“Discrimination is the quintessential unfair and deceptive practice. Online or offline, no business should be allowed to engage in discrimination and deny opportunities just because someone’s race, ethnicity, or language does not meet a certain criteria,” said David Brody, who leads the Digital Justice Initiative at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The FTC has a responsibility to proactively defend the rights of Black Americans, other communities of color, and all consumers against exploitative data practices.”

“Exploitative data practices, like discriminatory AI systems or dark patterns designed to deceive people, disproportionately harm marginalized communities who already face discrimination on multiple fronts,” said Sara Collins, Policy Counsel at Public Knowledge. “Fortunately, the FTC has both the authority and the opportunity to support the people who need them most. We urge the FTC to seize this moment to create new rules to protect the privacy of all Americans, but especially of marginalized people.”

“The proliferation of online services has created an unprecedented need for proactive consumer protection. Nowhere is that need more urgent than the protection of civil rights and equal opportunity online,” said Erin Simpson, Associate Director of Technology Policy at the Center for American Progress. “The FTC must fully embrace its consumer protection mission by using all tools available to curb abusive commercial data practices—and center the communities whose rights are most at risk.”