They have biases like the rest of us. And they make mistakes. But they’re opaque, hiding their secrets behind layers of complexity. How can we deal with the power that algorithms may exert on us? How can we better understand where they might be wronging us?
Transparency is the vogue response to this problem right now. The big “open data” transparency-in-government push that started in 2009 was largely the result of an executive memo from President Obama. And of course corporations are on board too; Google publishes a biannual transparency report showing how often they remove or disclose information to governments. Transparency is an effective tool for inculcating public trust and is even the way journalists are now trained to deal with the hole where mighty Objectivity once stood.
But transparency knows some bounds. For example, though the Freedom of Information Act facilitates the public’s right to relevant government data, it has no legal teeth for compelling the government to disclose how that data was algorithmically generated or used in publicly relevant decisions (extensions worth considering).
Moreover, corporations have self-imposed limits on how transparent they want to be, since exposing too many details of their proprietary systems may undermine a competitive advantage (trade secrets), or leave the system open to gaming and manipulation. Furthermore, whereas transparency of data can be achieved simply by publishing a spreadsheet or database, transparency of an algorithm can be much more complex, resulting in additional labor costs both in creation as well as consumption of that information—a cognitive overload that keeps all but the most determined at bay. Methods for usable transparency need to be developed so that the relevant aspects of an algorithm can be presented in an understandable way.
Given the challenges to employing transparency as a check on algorithmic power, a new and complementary alternative is emerging. I call it algorithmic accountability reporting. At its core it’s really about reverse engineering—articulating the specifications of a system through a rigorous examination drawing on domain knowledge, observation, and deduction to unearth a model of how that system works.
As interest grows in understanding the broader impacts of algorithms, this kind of accountability reporting is already happening in some newsrooms, as well as in academic circles. At the Wall Street Journal a team of reporters probed e-commerce platforms to identify instances of potential price discrimination in dynamic and personalized online pricing. By polling different websites they were able to spot several, such as Staples.com, that were adjusting prices dynamically based on the location of the person visiting the site. At the Daily Beast, reporter Michael Keller dove into the iPhone spelling correction feature to help surface patterns of censorship and see which words, like “abortion,” the phone wouldn’t correct if they were misspelled. In my own investigation for Slate, I traced the contours of the editorial criteria embedded in search engine autocomplete algorithms. By collecting hundreds of autocompletions for queries relating to sex and violence I was able to ascertain which terms Google and Bing were blocking or censoring, uncovering mistakes in how these algorithms apply their editorial criteria.