Janet Haven Addresses the FTC’s Forum on Commercial Surveillance and Data Security

On September 8, 2022, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) hosted an online public forum on commercial surveillance and data security, featuring panel discussions and remarks from FTC Chair Lina M. Khan and commissioners Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Alvaro Bedoya. (See the full agenda here.) As part of the public comment portion of the event, Janet Haven, Data and Society’s executive director, spoke about why transparency is essential to building a fair and just data ecosystem — and why it is not enough. These are her remarks as delivered, drafted in collaboration with D&S’s AI on the Ground program director Jake Metcalf and policy research analyst Serena Oduro.

My name is Janet Haven. I’m the executive director of Data & Society, a non-profit, independent research institute. We study the societal implications of data-centric technologies and automation, and translate that research into actionable, just policy recommendations.

As multiple presenters noted today, transparency documentation is a necessary component of preventing unfair and deceptive practices in the data industry. To combat discrimination and bias, the FTC must push toward universal obligations for transparency reporting in AI and ML product development — exemplified by tools such as “model cards” and “datasheets for datasets.” Such documentation would ultimately enable the adoption of auditing practices that are common in other industries, but largely absent in data-driven tech.

Yet research at Data & Society and beyond has demonstrated transparency is necessary, but not sufficient, to bring about a fair and just data ecosystem. Transparency documentation means little if impacted communities are not able to contest the decisions that are made about them, demand changes to abusive systems, and seek redress for the harms that have been named today. It is critically important that transparency mechanisms be treated as a foothold for accountability to the public, rather than simply flagging how a technological system will treat citizens and consumers. The FTC should look to successful public documentation models, such as environmental impact assessments, for examples of how the public can have a voice in product development that shapes the public sphere. The FTC must provide the public with opportunities and infrastructures to shape how these companies collect and categorize our data, make decisions about us, and potentially trap us in abusive and unfair sociotechnical systems.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today and for the work of the Commission.