How Privacy Law’s Beginnings May Suggest An Approach For Regulating Artificial Intelligence

A survey conducted in April 2017 by Morning Consult suggests most Americans are in favor of regulating artificial intelligence technologies. Of 2,200 American adults surveyed, 71% said they strongly or somewhat agreed that there should be national regulation of AI, while only 14% strongly or somewhat disagreed (15% did not express a view).

Technology and business leaders speaking out on whether to regulate AI fall into one of two camps: those who generally favor an ex post, case-by-case, common law approach, and those who prefer establishing a statutory and regulatory framework that, ex ante, sets forth clear do’s and don’ts and penalties for violations. (If you’re interested in learning about the challenges of ex post and ex ante approaches to regulation, check out Matt Scherer’s excellent article, “Regulating Artificial Intelligence Systems: Risks, Challenges, Competencies, and Strategies,” published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology (2016)).

Advocates for a proactive regulatory approach caution that the alternative is fraught with predictable danger. Elon Musk for one, notes that, “[b]y the time we’re reactive in A.I., regulation’s too late.” Others, including leaders of some of the biggest AI technology companies in the industry, backed by lobbying organizations like the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), feel that the hype surrounding AI does not justify quick Congressional action at this time.

Musk criticized this wait-and-see approach. “Normally, the way regulation’s set up,” he said, “a whole bunch of bad things happen, there’s a public outcry, and then after many years, a regulatory agency is set up to regulate that industry. There’s a bunch of opposition from companies who don’t like being told what to do by regulators, and it takes forever. That in the past has been bad but not something which represented a fundamental risk to the existence of civilization.”

Assuming AI regulation is inevitable, how should regulators (and legislators) approach such a formidable task? After all, AI technologies come in many forms, and their uses extend across multiple industries, including some already burdened with regulation. The history of privacy law may provide the answer.

Without question, privacy concerns, and privacy laws, touch on AI technology use and development. That’s because so much of today’s human-machine interactions involving AI are powered by user-provided or user-mined data. Search histories, images people appear in on social media, purchasing habits, home ownership details, political affiliations, and many other data points are well-known to marketers and others whose products and services rely on characterizing potential customers using, for example, machine learning algorithms, convolutional neural networks, and other AI tools. In the field of affective computing, human-robot and human-chatbot interactions are driven by a person’s voice, facial features, heart rate, and other physiological features, which are the percepts that the AI system collects, processes, stores, and uses when deciding actions to take, such as responding to user queries.

Privacy laws evolved from a period during late nineteenth century America when journalists were unrestrained in publishing sensational pieces for newspapers or magazines, basically the “fake news” of the time. This Yellow Journalism, as it was called, prompted legal scholars to express a view that people had a “right to be let alone,” setting in motion the development of a new body of law involving privacy. The key to regulating AI, as it was in the development of regulations governing privacy, may be the recognition of a specific personal right that is, or is expected to be, infringed by AI systems.

In the case of privacy, attorneys Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis (later, Justice Brandeis) were the first to articulate a personal privacy right. In The Right of Privacy, published in the Harvard Law Review in 1890, Warren and Brandeis observed that “the press is overstepping in every direction the obvious bounds of propriety and of decency. Gossip…has become a trade.” They contended that “for years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons.” They argued that a right of privacy was entitled to recognition because “in every [] case the individual is entitled to decide whether that which is his shall be given to the public.” A violation of the person’s right of privacy, they wrote, should be actionable.

Soon after, courts began recognizing the right of privacy in civil cases. By 1960, in his seminal review article entitled Privacy (48 Cal.L.Rev 383), William Prosser wrote, “In one form or another,” the right of privacy “was declared to exist by the overwhelming majority of the American courts.” That led to uniform standards. Some states enacted limited or sweeping state-specific statutes, replacing the common law with statutory provisions and penalties. Federal appeals courts weighed in when conflicts between state law arose. This slow progression from initial recognition of a personal privacy right in 1890, to today’s modern statutes and expansive development of common law, won’t appeal to those pushing for regulation of AI now.

Even so, the process has to begin somewhere, and it could very well start with an assessment of the personal rights that should be recognized arising from interactions with or the use of AI technologies. Already, personal rights recognized by courts and embodied in statutes apply to AI technologies. But there is one personal right, potentially unique to AI technologies, that has been suggested: the right to know why (or how) an AI technology took a particular action (or made a decision) affecting a person.

Take, for example, an adverse credit decision by a bank that relies on machine learning algorithms to decide whether a customer should be given credit. Should that customer have the right to know why (or how) the system made the credit-worthiness decision? FastCompany writer Cliff Kuang explored this proposition in his recent article, “Can A.I. Be Taught to Explain Itself?” published in the New York Times (November 21, 2017).

If AI could explain itself, the banking customer might want to ask it what kind of training data was used and whether the data was biased, or whether there was an errant line of python coding to blame, or whether the AI gave the appropriate weight to the customer’s credit history. Given the nature of AI technologies, some of these questions, and even more general ones, may only be answered by opening the AI black box. But even then it may be impossible to pinpoint how the AI technology made its decision. In Europe, “tell me why/how” regulations are expected to become effective in May 2018. As I will discuss in a future post, many practical obstacles face those wishing to build a statute or regulatory framework around the right of consumers to demand from businesses that their AI explain why it made or took a particular adverse action.

Regulation of AI will likely happen. In fact, we are already seeing the beginning of direct legislative/regulatory efforts aimed at the autonomous driving industry. Whether interest in expanding those efforts to other AI technologies grows or lags may depend at least in part on whether people believe they have personal rights at stake in AI, and whether those rights are being protected by current laws and regulations.

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