OPINION – Prop 24—the California Privacy Rights Act or CPRA —will help protect communities of color from online discrimination, and racial profiling.
Prop 24 includes a new concept in California privacy law, the creation of a special category of Sensitive Personal Information, which includes items such as a consumer’s race or ethnicity.
Unlike existing law, Prop 24 would allow consumers to tell a business, “You may not use my Sensitive Personal Information. Period.”
This would be a brand-new right in California law: Amazon doesn’t need to know your race or ethnicity to sell you toilet paper; Facebook doesn’t need to know your race or ethnicity to show your child where they should apply to college.
One of the reasons the giant platforms are so profitable, is that they know literally everything of importance about us. By removing a whole category of extremely sensitive personal information from their algorithms—our health, religion, union membership, sex life, sexual orientation, biometric and genetic information, and our race or ethnicity—Prop 24 would allow us to start down the long road of reclaiming control over our own data and reduce existing and “emerging technologies ability to reinforce White supremacy and deepen social inequity.”
Additionally, CPRA creates a brand-new right to learn about whether businesses are ‘profiling’ us, and if so, requires the business to disclose meaningful information about how the algorithm doing the profiling works. Plus, it allows us to object to such profiling.
This will help prevent consumers from seeing only housing ads or jobs ads because of their race. Facebook’s algorithm has repeatedly been proven to discriminate against black, indigenous, and people of color with respect to only showing us particular types of housing ads which then allows landlords to exclude certain racial groups when showing properties.
There is ample evidence employers discriminate based on race. So shouldn’t we look to weaken discriminatory practices not deepen them? Apparently not, as job ads on Facebook have also discriminated based on race and gender. The layers are so deep that without Prop 24 Californians cannot even decipher if what we see is objective or curated. Existing law forbids discrimination, but if I see an ad on Facebook, how do I begin to know whether I’m being discriminated against—why the algorithm selected me, and whether I’m not seeing other jobs just because of my race? Maybe as a black woman, all I actually see are jobs that don’t reflect my actual work experience and education and are instead rooted in racial bias and stereotypes, something UCLA Sociology professor Safiya Noble calls algorithmic oppression.
Prop 24 would allow visibility into this algorithmic ordering of our lives. It would allow us to object to the machine making incredibly important decisions for us, and provide transparency where now there is only opacity. European consumers have this right—why shouldn’t Californians have it also?
Finally, Prop 24 would allow Californians to stop businesses tracking them every step of every day, by allowing us to ‘blur’ our location within a circle of about 250 acres. So, this would allow a business to know I work in Berkeley but wouldn’t allow them to track me to the office, or the gym, or a friend’s house. It would prevent them monitoring who I was standing next to, or living with, or for insurance companies to know how healthy my food choices were or were not this week.
Why is this important? Because digital redlining is getting more and more sophisticated—if tech companies know who you spend time with, and whether you’ve been at a Black Lives Matter protest, or attend a predominantly black church, they can feed that into the algorithm and discriminate against you in a thousand different ways you’ve not even thought of, without leaving any fingerprints. In truth, the place where digital redlining could theoretically occur is when/if you choose to opt out of ad targeting. In that case the service provider could choose to charge a price but in practice no one is actually doing that. A good way to think about this is we all get those fake forwards on Facebook and inevitably a family member posts a statement claiming their rights to their content just in case Facebook decides to start charging for access. By now we all know that is not true. While it is always possible that that could happen, it is highly improbable.
In conclusion, Prop. 24 would give communities of color substantial new rights to prevent businesses discriminating against them based on their race or ethnicity, by allowing consumers to stop businesses using their most sensitive information.
That’s why I voted YES on Prop 24.
By Naniette Coleman | Special to the OBSERVER
Naniette Coleman is Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of California Berkeley. She is also the Executive Director of the Interdisciplinary Research Group on Privacy and a Graduate Student in Residence in the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at Berkeley.