Privacy Rights are Civil Rights

A person smiling for the camera

Description automatically generated with low confidence

Alisa Valentin, Ph.D.

Senior Director of Technology and Telecommunications Policy

National Urban League 

This era of big tech continues to unleash unimaginable possibilities to transform access to economic opportunities, education, healthcare, and methods to organize for social justice. Conversely, this era has also replicated and perfected inequities in wealth creation, the criminal justice system, and access to the ballot. This new economy is largely fueled by the data we turn over, both knowingly and unknowingly, to platforms that we use to make our lives more efficient and to fully participate in our 21st-century society. However, as our online and offline worlds continue to merge, it is incredibly clear that there is an urgent need to protect our privacy and more specifically a need to protect our civil rights online. 

Our data, both sensitive and non-sensitive, gives algorithms and broader artificial intelligence systems knowledge, power, and influence alongside the potential to impact every aspect of our lives. For example, housing advertisers have targeted ads to potential renters and buyers that are based on an individual’s race, religion, sex, and familial status. Lending algorithms have calculated higher interest rates for borrowers who attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Additionally, and perhaps most broadly known, Black people in America were targeted by the Russian IRA with a swarm of disinformation and misinformation and accounted for over 38% of U.S.-focused ads purchased in the 2016 presidential election. And these tactics were not just used by the Russian government as it was reported that 3.5 million Black Americans were categorized by Donald Trump’s campaign as “deterrence” voters or voters they wanted to keep away from the ballot box in 2020. 

With so much at stake, including our democracy, there are several actions that must be taken to protect our most vulnerable communities’ experiences online. Further, it is past time that we create and sustain a digital world in which Black people, and Black women in particular can thrive. First, Congress must pass federal privacy legislation with strong civil rights protections. In 2022, we came close. The American Data Privacy and Protect Act (ADPPA) passed out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee with a 53-2 bipartisan vote. This bill received broad support from the civil rights community as it prohibited the collection and use of data in ways that discriminate based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, and disability. It also required companies to conduct impact assessments so they can identify biases and mitigate harms alongside a requirement for companies to evaluate their algorithms for bias at the initial design phase before they are deployed. With such broad investments being made into AI systems for commercial use, the need for federal privacy legislation with civil rights protections is more urgent than ever. 

Next, it is important to stand up an Office of Civil Rights at the agencies that have significant influence on technology regulation including the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This will provide these agencies with the expertise needed to adequately address civil rights issues within their respective jurisdictions. Lastly, we must diversify the tech workforce so that our communities are in positions of power when decisions are being made as it relates to deploying technology. Additionally, because the tech sector has already resulted in such massive amounts of wealth accumulation that benefits from the creativity and data of Black people, the wealth must be distributed to our communities as we are not just consumers; we are also workers and business owners. 

Privacy rights are civil rights. Any comprehensive privacy framework must prohibit data-driven discrimination that ensures everyone has the right to equal opportunity online. In order to do this, we must implement safeguards through legislative, regulatory, and industry reforms that empower Black women and other marginalized groups to fully participate in our digital age.