Privacy expert argues “algorithmic transparency” is crucial for online freedoms at UNESCO knowledge café

“At the intersection of law and technology – knowledge of the algorithm is a fundamental right, a human right,” argued American privacy law expert Marc Rotenberg, on Wednesday, 2 December during a Knowledge Café event organized by UNESCO’s Communication and Information Sector at the Organization’s Headquarters in Paris.

Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), explained that algorithms, complex mathematical formulas and procedures through which computers process information and solve tasks, have an increasing impact on people’s lives in areas  related to commerce, employment and housing. Other areas impacted include access to information and  knowledge, freedom of expression, privacy and personal data protection online. Regarding access to information, he indicated that every search engine uses its own search algorithm which influences what information can be found and how results are displayed to users’ queries, as do social media and online services.

As more decisions become automated and processed by algorithms, these processes become more opaque and less accountable, with risks of secret profiling and illegal discrimination. For Rotenberg, “at the core of modern privacy law is a single goal: to make transparent, the automated decisions that impact our lives.” He sees “algorithmic transparency”, the principle that data processes which impact individuals be made public, as the next stage in the development of transparency law, internet law and privacy law. The lack of algorithmic transparency in the current internet ecosystem poses a crucial challenge to defending fundamental human rights online, ranging from privacy and freedom of expression to security.  In addition to algorithmic transparency, Rotenberg pointed to other emerging issues which need to be examined, notably the increasing access to drones and robots and the need for their registration.

In the spirited discussion, questions raised included:

  • How can algorithmic transparency be balanced with protecting commercial trade secrets and national security?
  • Who would be qualified to provide oversight of algorithms, given their complexity?
  • How can algorithmic transparency be promoted?
  • Can privacy by design be incorporated into algorithms?
  • How do algorithms impact free speech and the free flow of information?
  • What is the relationship between algorithmic transparency and informational self-determination (the right of the individual to determine the disclosure and use of his/her personal data)?

The Knowledge Café participants concluded that these questions highlight many areas for further research and debate, particularly in light of endorsement of UNESCO’s approach towards the internet following the General Conference decision adopted last month.

The Knowledge Café is an initiative of the Communication and Information Sector, which brings together stakeholders including Member States, UNESCO staff, policy makers and academics, to foster debate and exchange on ideas relating to freedom of the press, media development and the building of knowledge societies.