Social Justice and Tech Policy: What To Expect in 2021

Image by herbinisaac from Pixabay

As we say goodbye to 2020 (good riddance!), what are key policy debates to look out for in 2021 that implicate technology and social justice? Because 2020 has been a turbulent year, raising many equity issues to the fore, I want to focus on those tech policies that will have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable communities; people of color, immigrants, rural and low-income students, and consumers of all stripes. I believe the most pressing social justice tech issues in 2021 will be facial recognition, privacy, and broadband access. 

First, the outbreak of the Covid-19 global pandemic revealed concerns about the impacts of contact tracing technologies on privacy and has made the passing of a federal privacy law that much more urgent. Second, nation-wide Black Lives Matter protests over the killing of George Floyd exposed misgivings about the technologies that law enforcement use to police and surveil Black communities (and protestors). Finally, distance learning forced on us by the pandemic shed more light on the existing inequities in education, particularly with regard to access to educational technologies and broadband.

Locally, here in Washington State, and federally, the three big issues at the intersection of social justice and technology will therefore be around facial recognition, privacy, and broadband access. In fact, the same issues playing out at the state and local levels will be salient at the federal level. State and local action will be more important than ever as success on the national stage will be dependent, in large part, on whether or not we see a divided Congress in the new year. Even if the Georgia runoff election flips control of the Senate, given extant congressional gridlock, passage of meaningful legislation in these areas is less than likely. 

WASHINGTON STATE

Facial Recognition 

Although it may seem as if the issue of facial recognition was resolved with the passing of SB 6280, which I wrote about earlier this year, there are in fact continued efforts to pass a full-on moratorium on facial recognition. For some civil society groups, especially those concerned with civil liberties and social justice, the law does not go far enough in limiting the use of facial recognition by law enforcement. It has also been criticized for having weak enforcement provisions.

At the local level, efforts at reforming the Seattle Police Department (SPD) continue, after the historic standoff between Black Lives Matter protestors and the police in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, following the police killing of George Floyd. The summer saw protests all over the country, but Seattle’s concerted and tenacious Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) made national news. Among the protestors’ demands to defund SPD, there is concern that the police are using Clearview AI, a facial recognition provider known for privacy and transparency issues, against the City’s Surveillance Ordinance, the strongest municipal anti-surveillance measure in the country. As many municipalities passed facial recognition moratoriums this year, there are calls to do the same in Seattle. As the pressure mounts, even big facial recognition providers like Amazon and Microsoft vowed not to sell facial recognition to law enforcement, for now. 

The issue of facial recognition has also become tied to issues of immigration. As many across the country protested the current administration’s mistreatment of immigrant children at the border, the activism spilled over into the tech world. Tech workers have demanded that companies like Microsoft and Amazon not provide tech solutions to ICE and other immigration enforcement agencies that are violating human rights. So when the Port of Seattle Commission proposed using biometrics tracking at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the WA ACLU and others urged it to reconsider. They suggested that SeaTac not collaborate with CBP and instead prohibit all use of facial recognition technology at the airport citing concerns about bias, discrimination, and surveillance. 

As the use of AI, beyond facial recognition, continues to grow in areas like housing, credit, criminal justice, healthcare, and employment, we may also see increased efforts to regulate algorithms to prevent discriminatory outcomes.

Privacy

Third time’s the charm? At the beginning of 2020, I wrote about the chances of the Washington Privacy Act passing, shortly before it failed in the legislature for the second time in a row. The bill will be up for consideration again in next year’s pandemic-adjusted legislative session. The bill grants consumers certain protections and rights over their data. The negotiations fell apart earlier this year over enforcement issues, namely whether a private right of action is to be included. This year, the bill also has some additional provisions around privacy during public health emergencies given the relevance of privacy-impacting activities like contact tracing during Covid-19. It remains to be seen whether this time around stakeholders will be able to come to some agreement. 

Digital Divide & Broadband Access 

Covid-19 has brought to the fore what sociologists of education have been saying for many years, which is that technology access is not distributed equally across the country’s student population thereby compounding existing socioeconomic and racial inequities in our public education system. 

Likewise, long before the pandemic, tech companies like Microsoft have been pointing to this issue as a major social problem, and trying to promote and invest in broadband access expansion. Now there is more local interest with State House Representative Mia Gregerson calling on legislators to step up in providing universal internet access. Access to affordable and reliable broadband, digital skills training, and access to the latest educational hardware and software are all resources that are inequitably distributed creating a digital divide that limits life opportunities for those without access. However, given a short legislative term and stretched budgets as it is, it’s unclear what substantive progress will be made in this area. 

FEDERAL LEVEL

The same three issues are reflected on the national scene with specific legislative proposals pending for each. Washington state leaders are paving the way in each of these areas. 

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, with co-sponsors, introduced the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act. The bill would prohibit the use of facial recognition by all federal agencies, including law enforcement, absent congressional approval. It would also withhold federal public safety subsidies to local and state governments that would be used for biometric surveillance.

In the privacy space, Senator Maria Cantwell is leading the charge with the Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act (COPRA). This bill aims to enact a GDPR-like privacy law that grants consumers rights over their data. Like at the state level, controversies abound over enforcement and preemption (the possibility of a watered down federal law invalidating stronger state laws). 

Finally, on the issue of broadband access, Senator Patty Murray introduced the 2019 Digital Equity Act. The bill would grant funding to local governments to expand broadband access and improve internet infrastructure, particularly in rural and underserved areas. Introduced in April 2019, the bill didn’t even get passed to committee. 

We can throw all of these bills into the dustbin of history if Congress remains divided. Pardon the melodramatic tone, but after many years of legislative inaction while technological innovation barrels ahead, patience across all stakeholder groups – advocacy, academic, and corporate – is running low. In the face of probable congressional inaction, state and local governments will have to pick up the slack. And the incoming Biden administration will have to govern through executive order, administrative regulation, and budgeting. 2021, here we come!

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