British policemen questioning black youths

Who, or what, sent them?

Jane Wiedel Photolibrary/Alamy Stockphoto

HAVE you been turned down by a computer? Perhaps your online credit application was refused. Maybe you were denied a job, or even parole.

Soon, you may have the right to ask the inscrutable algorithms involved to explain themselves.

In April this year, the European parliament approved the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a new set of rules governing personal data. Due to go into effect in 2018, it introduces a “right to explanation”: the opportunity for European Union citizens to question the logic of an algorithmic decision – and contest the results.

We should cheer this development. The world is increasingly run by algorithms that calculate credit scores, read medical scans, drive our cars and tell our police forces where to patrol. But algorithms can behave in mysterious ways, sometimes even surprising the programmers who created them. It’s crucial that ordinary people whose lives they affect have the ability to examine and challenge decisions.

The GDPR is a significant step forward compared with existing laws, says Bryce Goodman at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute. It creates new rules about how data is used and explicitly states how they affect any company working with data belonging to European citizens, whether or not that company is based in Europe. (We’re looking at you, Google.)

“An arbitrary decision made by a designer in Silicon Valley dictates the policies we live our lives by“

It also has teeth. Organisations in breach of the GDPR can expect fines of up to 4 per cent of their yearly turnover or €20 million – whichever is greater.

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