Revealed: Germany’s data strategy to tackle discrimination, encourage competition

Through the strategy, the German government aims to raise the national potential for innovation. [Shutterstock | Antiv]

The German government is to tackle the employment of ‘discriminatory’ algorithms across a number of different sectors, as part of its Data Strategy set to be unveiled on Wednesday (27 January). EURACTIV Germany reports.

The text of the new strategy, obtained by EURACTIV, also aims to harmonize data protection rules at the federal level and the security of IT systems are to be bolstered.

In terms of clamping down on biased algorithms in operation across the country, the German government plans to “examine whether and how discrimination of citizens by algorithm-based decisions can be counteracted, for example in application procedures” or in the granting of loans, the document says.

Digital discrimination was also discussed in other areas in Germany last year, such as automatic facial recognition. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) wanted to install additional smart cameras in public places for this purpose, but fierce opposition came from civil society (EURACTIV reported), including concerns about discrimination against women and people of colour.

“Discrimination on data-based and thus supposedly objective decisions is real – especially when models perpetuate existing discriminatory aspects,” the German government writes elsewhere.

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Algorithms are not neutral

With the aim of promoting “innovative and responsible use of data,” the government plans, for example, to research more closely how companies adapt their offers and prices to their customers, and what effects result from this.

If two people are offered the same product under different conditions (for example, insurance), algorithms could be behind it that have created different profiles from all the available data.

It can also exacerbate existing social inequalities, such as when people with certain socio-economic backgrounds are at a disadvantage when looking for a job because an algorithm associates this background with low job opportunities – and thus denies them social advancement.

Too little is known about these algorithms, the government says; and in fact, they mostly fall under corporate trade secrecy.

More research is planned in this area, including the sociopolitical implications. The Justice Ministry will also examine whether such discrimination can be legally addressed, for example by imposing stricter requirements on the training data on the basis of which such algorithms learn.

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Praise from the business community

In the area of data protection, the German government wants to harmonize federal structures more closely. Currently, there are 17 data protection commissioners in Germany, one for each federal state plus the federal commissioner, Ulrich Kelber (SPD).

They coordinate among themselves, “yet legal interpretations may diverge,” according to the government.

The same applies at the European level, where “diverging data protection understandings of different supervisory authorities within the EU […] could also create challenges for a harmonized application of the law and for more European data sovereignty.”

For this reason, he said, the Interior Ministry is now examining measures to enable such closer cooperation.

In the area of health research, for which a functioning exchange of data is essential, a separate lead supervisory authority has been created for this purpose.

There is praise for this from eco, the German Internet industry association.

“Harmonising the existing federal patchwork in matters of data protection in Germany is a fundamentally welcome goal of the federal government’s data strategy currently under discussion,” says a spokeswoman for the association.

“Implementing data protection law in a more uniform and consistent manner while maintaining the existing level of data protection is something we as eco have been calling for for a long time,” she continued.

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Fighting against data monopolies

However, the association is critical of the proposed obligation for companies to share non-personal data.

Specifically, the German government fears that companies could have a “considerable commercial interest in using their own data exclusively.” This would bring competitive advantages and even promote monopolization.

Therefore, they want to promote a “culture of voluntary and responsible data sharing” and also better record abuses of market power. This is also the aim of the recent amendment to the Act against Restraints of Competition (GWB) (EURACTIV reported).

If this were to become a requirement to share data, the government would first have to examine in detail “the extent to which such an obligation would affect innovation and competition,” the eco spokeswoman said.

Edited by Samuel Stolton

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