AI, Civil Rights, and the Future of Our Democracy

By Aaliyah Adkins and Kendra Mills | The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights recently hosted a convening that brought together dozens of civil rights organizations, many who are working to address the impact of AI on civil and human rights. The event highlighted both concerns and opportunities associated with the current state of AI governance. Beyond the wide-ranging keynote speeches and discussions between expert panelists drawn from government, academia, civil society, the tech industry, and the public sector, the convening also served as a launch event for The Leadership Conference’s Center for Civil Rights and Technology.

The Center, first announced in September 2023, was created to address issues at the intersection of civil rights and emerging technologies — and at the forefront of this intersection is the growing impact of AI on critical civil rights issues such as housing, employment, the criminal-legal system, and voting.

The event featured three keynote speakers — Congresswoman Yvette Clarke; Charlotte Burrows, chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC); and Alvaro Bedoya, commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Congresswoman Clarke described the AI boom as an opportunity to enshrine values into the technology of the future and powerfully declared that she believes “biases in AI is the civil rights issue of our time.” She discussed the critical importance of regulation in ensuring that AI does not reinforce biases and inequalities, referencing her bill — the AI Accountability Act — that would require companies to conduct impact assessments and internal audits concerning their products’ civil rights implications.

EEOC Chair Burrows emphasized that the EEOC, as well other civil rights enforcement agencies, must remain vigilant to ensure that any advantages that come with the use of AI and other automated technologies don’t come at the price of equal opportunity. Chair Burrows also paid tribute to the historical work of The Leadership Conference. “The members of The Leadership Conference, as you all know, have been the conscience of our civil rights community for decades. And as we prepare to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which gave birth to my agency, the EEOC, I’d be remiss not to mention that The Leadership Conference also had a key role in advocating for the successful passage of that landmark act,” Chair Burrows said. “So there should be no surprise that The Leadership Conference is once again at the forefront, on the cutting edge, of this important civil rights issue right now in 2024.”

Finally, FTC Commissioner Bedoya discussed the importance of market competition in ensuring that tech sector leaders are held to account. In addition, he shared that the FTC brought and settled a case against Rite Aid in December 2023 for its operation of facial recognition technology. Over the past eight years, Rite Aid had thousands of false facial recognition matches, including a false match of an 11-year-old girl who was stopped and searched in one of Rite Aid’s pharmacies. The settlement banned Rite Aid from using facial recognition technology for five years and implemented safeguards to protect customers from any other surveillance technology that Rite Aid may use in the future. Commissioner Bedoya emphasized that the case is an example of the FTC’s commitment to protecting consumers from algorithmic decision-making that can substantially injure customers.

Beyond the FTC’s monitoring of generative AI as it has gained traction, Commissioner Bedoya also spoke about more basic algorithmic decision-making and the ways in which it pervades virtually every aspect of modern life. Together, these three speakers offered important insight into the federal government’s efforts to address AI — as well as the critical work ahead.

The convening’s panel discussions covered a variety of topics that highlighted the intersection of traditional civil rights issues and the emergence of AI. During the first panel — “The AI Regulatory Roundtable: What Does Ethical AI Look Like, and How Can We Regulate It?” — the panelists discussed AI governance approaches and how to fill current gaps in AI regulation. The panelists offered insight into how to implement regulations that would protect civil rights in the future and offered potential approaches that Congress could take to ensure protection in certain sectors.

The second panel — “Safeguarding Democracy: AI, Voting, and the Future of our Elections” — addressed how AI could exacerbate the spread, volume, and targeting of election disinformation to communities of color in particular. The panelists discussed steps that Congress, states, agencies, and social media platforms can take to regulate disinformation and limit interference in elections.

During the third panel — “AI and the Workforce: Championing Workers’ Rights in the Era of AI” — panelists examined the disproportionate impacts that AI in the workplace could have on women, people with disabilities, and people of color and explored regulatory approaches to address these issues. The panelists also discussed the importance of unions in ensuring a safe, equitable future where AI is prevalent in the workplace. The fourth panel — “Democracy at an Inflection Point: Addressing Urgent AI Challenges in 2024” — directly discussed how each community would face challenges as a result of AI and other emerging technologies. Panelists also provided an overview of the issues discussed throughout the convening — touching on voting, privacy, and workforce and data issues — and they reaffirmed the importance of regulation and governance that prioritizes the protection of civil rights.

Maya Wiley, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference, noted that “We are in an election year and democracy is on the ballot,” and she described this as a moment during which we are grappling with “whether or not we’re going to be inclusive. Whether we are going to ensure that technologies advance democracy rather than disrupt our ability to be democratic. And whether or not we’re going to honestly face down what it means to understand that frontier systems, AI, is built on bias. It’s built on discrimination. It doesn’t mean that we can’t do good with it, but we can’t do any good in society unless we confront it.”

The Center for Civil Rights and Technology will be working every day to do just that.

Aaliyah Adkins and Kendra Mills are spring 2024 legal interns at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *