Washington state wants to regulate artificial intelligence, as Microsoft lobbies for new rules

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State Capitol
The Washington state Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Flickr Photo / WSDOT)

Washington state could become a pioneer in regulating artificial intelligence if lawmakers and Microsoft get their way. A series of bills introduced this legislative session seek to blaze a trail for this new frontier of technological innovation.

The legislation focuses on biometric screening and digital profiling. Those topics are part of a broader set of tech-related bills that the state legislature is considering.

Microsoft and its president, Brad Smith, have been pleading with regulators to enact laws governing artificial intelligence for months. The company says it wants safeguards in place before the technology becomes too disruptive. Smith noted last year that AI guidelines established in the state would have an impact globally because of the tech companies based here.

Washington State Sen. Reuven Carlyle. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Seattle’s other tech titan, Amazon, has also started quietly advocating for regulation of AI technologies. Its CEO Jeff Bezos said in September that the company’s public policy team is working on a set of proposed regulations for facial recognition technology. Both Amazon and Microsoft develop facial recognition software.

Skeptics claim that Microsoft and Amazon’s involvement in the legislative process in their home state is an effort to ensure regulations don’t become too onerous to business.

Regardless of the intent, Microsoft says it wants to see regulators get out ahead of artificial intelligence instead of playing catch up, as they are with data privacy. Last legislative session, Washington had the chance to be the first state in the nation to regulate how organizations use consumer data online. But a bill that would’ve done just that died in the state House after clearing the Senate.

Washington Sen. Reuven Carlyle and his colleagues are trying again this session with a new data privacy bill. The bill is similar in some ways to California’s new data privacy law and the European Union’s rules, but it also covers facial recognition, which became a lightning rod in the last session. This time around, lawmakers have introduced a separate facial recognition bill with similar principles. Their goal is to double the chances of enacting rules to govern the controversial technology by introducing two separate bills.

Sen. Joe Nguyen at the Microsoft Commons. In addition to his part-time legislator role, Nguyen is a full-time Microsoft employee.

The architect of the facial recognition bill, Sen. Joe Nguyen, is a program manager for Microsoft. Because the state legislature is part-time, some lawmakers maintain full-time jobs outside of Olympia. Microsoft was a leading proponent of the data privacy bill last session and is already pledging to take another swing at the issue this year. Microsoft’s privacy chief, Julie Brill, published a blog post-Friday backing the privacy and facial recognition bills.

A third bill concerns artificial intelligence-enabled profiling, in an effort to prevent machines from making decisions that could have real-life consequences for Washington residents. The goal is to prevent a scenario like this: A convenience store owner uses software in security cameras that can “predict” the mood of shoppers. Using artificial intelligence technology that scans facial expressions, the software tells the clerk that a shopper looks fearful and angry, which prompts the proprietor to kick the customer out for fear of shoplifting.

Taken together, the bills reflect growing anxiety among lawmakers and their constituents about how artificial intelligence will impact our everyday lives. And Washington, with its liberal and tech-savvy electorate, could become the first state to enact meaningful rules to govern our AI future.

These are some of the tech-related bills the legislature is considering this session:

Data privacy: The Washington Privacy Act aims to give consumers new rights to ownership over their data, including the right to access, delete, correct, and move their data, or opt-out of data collection. The regulations would apply to any business that is domiciled in Washington — or targets services to Washington customers — that controls or processes personal data of 100,000 consumers or more. Businesses that derive more than 50 percent of their revenue from the sale of personal data and process or control personal data from more than 25,000 consumers are also subject to the regulations. The bill establishes new rules for companies that develop or use facial recognition technology, including requirements that the software be made available for third-party accuracy testing. Individuals must be notified if facial recognition software is in use, with some exceptions.

Facial recognition: The regulations governing companies that use facial recognition outlined in the Washington Privacy Act would be extended to state and local government agencies in Washington under this bill. Government officials using the technology would be required to publish accountability and transparency reports. The bill requires human review of any decisions made using facial recognition technology that produce “legal effects.” It would also create a task force to review civil liberties questions and other issues that arise from the technology. It puts additional restrictions on government agencies that want to use facial recognition in ongoing surveillance.

Biometric data: Facial recognition is one method of biometric screening, a system of identifying individuals using biological distinctions, like fingerprints or iris scans. This bill grants individuals legal ownership of their biometric data. It says each person in Washington state “owns and has an exclusive property right in the person’s biometric identifiers.”

Artificial Intelligence Profiling Act: The bill would prohibit the use of artificial intelligence technology to determine a person’s “state of mind, character, propensities, protected class status, political affiliation, religious beliefs or religious affiliation, immigration status, or employability” in any public space. It also forbids Washington residents from using AI profiling to deny service to customers, make hiring decisions, or any other action that produces “legal effects.”

Digital Equity Act: The goal of this legislation is to expand access to broadband internet and digital skills training for Washington residents who have been left behind by the innovation economy. It would create a grant program to fund equity projects at the state and local levels to bridge the digital divide.

Blockchain: Two bills introduced this session center around blockchain, the system of digital record-keeping underlying cryptocurrency and other technologies. One of the bills creates a workgroup to study possible applications for blockchain technology in Washington state, such as banking, financial services, public record-keeping, and real estate. The public-private partnership would be composed of legislators and government agencies focused on commerce, finance, and technologies. Industry representatives from trade organizations would also be part of the workgroup. The second bill is focused on updating how the state treats electronic transactions. Blockchain industry members and advocates are lobbying the legislature to include distributed ledger technology in the definition of electronic transactions.

Worth noting: Though it’s not a tech bill, state lawmakers are considering legislation that addresses a key concern of many in the technology industry. The bill would fund broader childcare access in Washington and expand subsidies to help more families afford it. More than 1,000 Amazon employees have asked their employer to provide childcare benefits, which other tech companies like Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google offer.

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