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The Digital Justice Initiative works at the intersection of racial justice, technology, and privacy. Predatory commercial data practices, discriminatory algorithms, invasions of privacy, disinformation, and online hate disproportionately target and harm communities of color, especially Black Americans, immigrants, women of color, and LGBTQ people of color. Everyone should be entitled to the equal enjoyment of the internet’s goods and services without fear of discrimination.  

For more information, feel free to email us at [email protected].

Commercial Data Practices

The Digital Justice Initiative works to protect privacy rights, preserve equal opportunity online, and combat discriminatory uses of personal information. Tech companies can misuse personal data, intentionally or unintentionally, to harm marginalized communities through deception, discrimination, exploitation, and perpetuation of systemic biases. Absent anti-discrimination protections, online businesses could refuse service on the basis of race or ethnicity, provide subpar products based on gender or sexual orientation, charge higher rates based on religion, or ignore the accessibility needs of persons with disabilities.

Litigation: 

Case: Liapes v. Facebook, Inc.

Facebook’s advertising system engages in segregation and redlining, according to a new amicus brief filed by the Digital Justice Initiative in Liapes v. Facebook in California Superior Court. Our amicus brief describes how Facebook’s advertising system discriminates on the basis of race, sex and age in both the targeting and delivery of ads, and why such redlining practices unjustly threaten to give rise to a modern version of segregation in online commerce. In Liapes, a plaintiff sued Facebook for discriminating on the basis of her sex and age when delivering ads for insurance opportunities.  

Read the amicus brief. 

Case: Opiotennione v. Facebook, Inc. 

How a platform targets and delivers online ads has the ability to exclude entire classes of individuals from seeing economic opportunities, like employment, housing and banking, without them even knowing that platform is discriminating against them. We submitted an amicus brief, arguing that Facebook engages in unlawful online segregation and redlining when its algorithms discriminate in the delivery of ads.   

Read the amicus brief. 

   

Case: Freedom Watch v. Google 

This case raised the question of whether or not D.C.’s public accommodations statute applies to online businesses. Public accommodations laws prohibit businesses that serve the general public from discriminating in their goods and services. We submitted an amicus brief arguing that the District of Columbia Human Rights Act’s public accommodations provisions apply to online businesses. While the D.C. Circuit ruled that online businesses are exempt, the D.C. Council subsequently overturned this decision and expanded its anti-discrimination laws in new legislation. 

Find out more about the case. 

  

Advocacy and Policy:    

Online Privacy Rights:

The Digital Justice Initiative supports the enactment of a comprehensive federal privacy law. We supported the Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act and the Privacy Bill of Rights Act in the 116th Congress, and have written a model bill that prioritizes the protection of online civil rights. These bills contain significant protections against the discriminatory use of personal data.  

View our model legislation, endorsements, op-eds, and letters to congress.  

Facial Recognition Technology:

Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) is biased against people of color and women. And, when facial recognition technology is used in systems that are already discriminatory, like criminal justice, it exacerbates the inequities and causes even more unfairness. The national Lawyers’ Committee is gravely concerned about the misuse of FRT, and advocates for limitations on where FRT is used, and greater transparency and trust moving forward. 

View our work on facial recognition technology.

Expanding Nevada’s Public Accommodations Laws to Online Platforms: 

In June 2021, Nevada enacted Assembly Bill 207. The bill extends the state’s public accomodations laws, which prevent discrimination and segregation in commerce, to online entities. Previously, this law only applied to brick-and-mortar businesses. Public accomodations laws are a cornerstone of civil rights statutes, and the passage of this bill means that Nevadans will be better protected from online discrimination.

Read our endorsement.

Read our testimony before the Nevada State Assembly.

Expanding D.C.’s Public Accommodations Protections to Online Platforms: 

David Brody, who leads the Digital Justice Initiative, worked closely with the Washington, D.C. Office of the Attorney General to pass the Bella Evangelista and Tony Hunter Panic Defense Prohibition and Hate Crimes Response Amendment Act. The Act, which was passed by the D.C. Council in December 2020, extends the D.C. Human Rights Act’s public accommodation protections to apply to online businesses, such as social media platforms. This will prevent them from discriminating in their services and will allow legal action against online harassers who threaten and cyberbully D.C. residents on the basis of their protected characteristics. The omnibus Act also includes several other provisions to strengthen D.C.’s hate crimes laws, particularly protections for those targeted on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Read the press release. 

Endorsement: Algorthmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act

In May 2021, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) introduced te Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act (AJOPTA), a sweeping and robust online civil rights bill. AJOPTA includes numerous provisions that will reign-in big tech and safeguard individuals’ freedom when using the internet. AJOPTA will protect against discriminatory uses of personal information, create transparency for online advertising and content moderation, require technologies using artifical intelligence to be tested for bias, protect whistleblower and individual rights, and more.

Read our endorsement.

Reforming Section 230Endorsement of the SAFE TECH Act  

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law supports and endorses the Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism and Consumer Harms (SAFE TECH) Act, which will reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and strengthen the ability to hold online business accountable when they violate civil rights laws. The bill also removes Section 230 immunity for advertisements, which means that if a platform is paid to distribute a piece of content, it can be held legally accountable for harms caused by that content. 

Read our endorsement. 

Reforming Section 230: Hold Big Tech Accountable

In a letter to President Biden, 15 national organizations asked him to put an end to the recent practice of incorporating big tech liability shields akin to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act into trade agreements. Section 230 has recently been used by tech platforms to evade accountability. Cementing it into trade agreements with little public oversight limits the ability of Congress and advocates to address privacy concerns, cybercrime, civil rights, and more. This practice must end to protect the civil rights of Americans, our democratic institution’s, and the public’s interest. 

Read the letter.

Publications: 

Discriminatory Denial of Service: Applying State Public Accommodations Laws to Online Commerce:

A comprehensive report of all 50 states and the District of Columbia public accommodations laws and their applicability to online entities. Because most states enacted public accommodations laws before the invention of the internet, it can be unclear whether and how they apply to online commerce.  

View the report. 

Online Voter Suppression and Disinformation

The Digital Justice Initiative actively fights against online voter suppression, disinformation, and election interference targeting Black Americans and other marginalized communities. We work with Election Protection to monitor for voter suppression activity online, report it to the relevant online platforms for enforcement, and, when necessary, bring litigation in conjunction with our Voting Rights Project.

Litigation: 

Case: Nat’l Coalition on Black Civic Participation v. Wohl    

On Oct. 16, 2020, we filed the first ever Voting Rights Act case against voter intimidation robocalls and won a temporary restraining order. In this case, two men targeted about 85,000 robocalls to Black voters in several states with false messages designed to scare them about voting by mail. The Court held that the defendants likely violated the Voting Rights Act and KKK Act of 1871, and engaged in “electoral terror.”  

The Court wrote: “Today, almost 150 years later, the forces and conflicts that animated Congress’s adoption of the Ku Klux Klan Act as well as subsequent voting rights legislation, are playing out against before this Court, though with a difference. In the current version of events, the means Defendants use to intimidate voters, though born of fear and similarly powered by hate, are not guns, torches, burning crosses, and other dire methods perpetrated under the cover of white hoods. Rather, Defendants carry out electoral terror using telephones, computers, and modern technology adapted to serve the same deleterious ends. Because of the vastly greater population they can reach instantly with false and dreadful information, contemporary means of voter intimidation may be more detrimental to free elections than the approaches taken for that purpose in past eras, and hence call for swift and effective judicial relief.” 

Find out more about the case. 

  

Advocacy and Policy: 

Racist Robocalls: 

The Digital Justice Initiative notified the Federal Communications Commission and provided briefings on a neo-Nazi whose robocall operations targeted communities of color and political candidates of color with racist and anti-Semitic messaging. We explained why the hateful messaging caused more harm than an ordinary robocall, and how he violated FCC regulations, which led the FCC to impose a nearly $13 million fine. This is the first time the FCC has brought an enforcement action against someone using telecommunications unlawfully to terrorize communities of color, and certainly one of the largest civil penalties ever imposed on an individual white supremacist by a federal agency. 

  

Election Disinformation on Internet Platforms: 

On Oct. 1, David Brody, counsel and senior fellow for Privacy and Technology, participated in a New America Open Technology Institute virtual panel, where he discussed election disinformation on internet platforms. More specifically, he discussed the rapid spread of misinformation and how to identify if something is false or misleading, and  how platforms are failing to protect the right to vote.  

View the full event. 

Online Hate

The Digital Justice Initiative actively investigates, litigates, and advocates against white supremacy and other forms of hate that use Internet to target Black Americans and other marginalized communities. There are serious real-world harms from online hate, including chilling effects on equal participation in online commerce and social activities; economic and reputational injuries to minority-owned businesses; psychological injuries from threats of violence, rape, and death; living in fear for one’s personal safety; and the instigation of hate crimes. Online hate also suppresses free speech, by intimidating the target community into self-censoring and impeding the target’s free and equal use of the platform.

Litigation: 

Case: Metropolitan A.M.E. Church v. Proud Boys International LLC 

On Jan. 4, 2021, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a lawsuit against the Proud Boys, a violent all-male group with ties to white nationalism, and their leader, Enrique Tarrio, for vandalizing the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. on December 12, 2020.  The Proud Boys attacked and vandalized property of the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, a historic Black church, because of its congregants’ support for the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Find out more about the case.

Case: Dumpson v. Ade

In 2017, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law brought a lawsuit on behalf of Taylor Dumpson after she was targeted by a hate crime following her inauguration as the first Black woman student body president of American University. After nooses were hung on campus targeting her, Dumpson was singled out by a neo-Nazi website and barraged with online threats and harassment. The lawsuit alleged that the neo-Nazis violated her right to equal enjoyment of public accommodations and right to education under the D.C. Human Rights Act. For the first time anywhere in the United States, the court ruled that online harassment can unlawfully interfere equal enjoyment of public accommodations and awarded her over $725,000.   

Find out more about the case.

 

Advocacy and Policy: 

Change the Terms Coalition:

The national Lawyers’ Committee is a principal member of the Change the Terms Coalition, which seeks to help tech companies stop white supremacists from using their services to engage in hateful activities. All online platforms, especially social media companies, must protect their users from hateful activities and serious real-world harm that is caused by online hate. 

Advocating Against Online Hate On Social Media: 

In February 2021, we submitted comments to the Facebook Oversight Board, urging them to permanently ban former President Trump from Facebook because of the risk he poses to further incitement of violence and promotion of racism. Trump’s lying attacks on the election and promotion of violence threatened our democracy and made anyone who disagreed with him a target on online hate and harassment – especially Black Americans fighting for racial justice and voting rights.  

Find out more. 

In November 2019, the national Lawyers’ Committee sent an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, warning him of the company’s legal liability for civil rights violations. 

Read the letter. 

  

Publications:  

Discriminatory Denial of Service: Applying State Public Accommodations Laws to Online Commerce:  

A comprehensive report of all 50 states and the District of Columbia public accommodations laws and their applicability to online entities. Because most states enacted public accommodations laws before the invention of the internet, it can be unclear whether and how they apply to online commerce.  

View the report. 

 

Special Projects

While the Digital Justice Initiative works across several different areas to ensure equal justice for all online, there are sometimes specialized situations where we file litigation or advocate in conjunction with other Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law programs. These matters include issues relating to First Amendment rights, Fourth Amendment rights, or conspiracies against civil rights, as such legal issues often arise in the context of the Initiative’s work.

Case: Black Lives Matter D.C. v. Trump 

On June 4, 2020, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and co-counsel filed a lawsuit on behalf of Black Lives Matter D.C. and several individual demonstrators against former President Trump, former Attorney General William Barr and other government officials for unlawfully attacking peaceful demonstrators outside the White House. The crowd, peacefully protesting the killing of George Floyd, was assaulted with tear gas, rubber bullets, clubs, and shields to clear the way for a photo op for the president.    

Find out more about the case.

Case: B.L. v. Mahanoy School District

The U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, adopted the First Amendment interpretation advanced by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and more than 30 other organizations in a case about school regulation of online and off-campus speech by students. The case involves a 14-year-old high school student who was suspended from her school’s cheerleading team for using expletives on her personal social media, off school grounds, on a weekend, and did not mention the school. In complete agreement with our amicus brief, the Supreme Court ruled that schools should rarely intervene in off-campus student speech, especially speech involving political or religious matters, but that schools retain the authority to intervene  to prevent harassment, bullying, cheating, or similar harms.

Read the amicus brief.