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Searching for bias on web now legal

by on31 March 2020

Trump’s Attorney General routed

Searching for bias in websites or in social notworking groups should not get you arrested for hacking in the US, a federal court has ruled.

For a while now researchers have been wanting to build algorithms which sniff out discrimination on websites to make sure that such sites are switched off or ignored by search engines. The only problem is that under US law they could be violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and result in jail time. In other words it is ok to be a right-wing white terrorist and run a website calling for the genocide of non-whites, but if you write a bit of code which detects such views you could go to jail for a decade or two.

Jailing researchers who point out biased and racist sites was the legal opinion of Attorney General William Barr who argued that the Act made it illegal to violate a site's terms of service because it involved investigative methods, such as submitting false info for research.

However, Judge John Bates determined that the terms only raised the possibility of civil liability, not criminal cases.

Bates observed that many sites' terms of service - which are frequently buried, cryptic or both - didn't provide a good-enough notice to make people criminally liable, and that it's problematic for private sites to define criminal liability.

The judge found that the government was using an overly broad interpretation when it's supposed to use a narrow view whenever there's ambiguity.

If the government doesn't contest the ruling, it effectively greenlights future bias studies without the approval of site operators. Facebook and other social networks could still have the power to kick researchers off their networks or file civil suits, but they couldn't threaten federal charges and prison time.

Last modified on 31 March 2020
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