Judgement of the Dutch Institute for Human Rights shows how difficult it is to legally prove algorithmic discrimination

Today, the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights ruled that the VU did not discriminate against bioinformatics student Robin Pocornie on the basis of race by using anti-cheating software. However, the VU has discriminated on the grounds of race when handling her complaint.

Lees dit persbericht in het Nederlands

The Institute for Human Rights ignores the fact that the software discriminates

Pocornie filed a complaint against the VU in July 2022 because the anti-cheating software that she was obliged to use at home during Covid did not recognize her as a person due to her dark skin colour. She was not the only student of colour with this problem, students worldwide had to take exams with a lamp directly in their face to be recognized.

In its previous interim judgement, the Institute found that Pocornie had made it sufficiently plausible that the software is discriminatory. However, in the final assessment, the Institute only looks at Pocornie’s individual experience. The Institute is of the opinion that the VU “does not have to demonstrate in this case that there was no discrimination at all – against any student – on the grounds of race in the use of Proctorio’s software.”

There was ample scientific evidence of discrimination, but not enough legal evidence

“The judgment shows how difficult it is to legally prove that an algorithm discriminates,” said Naomi Appelman, lawyer and chair of the Racism and Technology Center that supported Pocornie in her case. “There is an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that facial detection works less well for people with dark skin, as is also shown in recent research by RTL Nieuws.” The Institute shares this insight. Although, according to the Institute, it has not been conclusively proven in this specific case that discrimination took place, this does not rule out “that the use of Proctorio or comparable AI software in other situations may lead to discrimination.”

Robin Pocornie continues to work on raising awareness about technology and discrimination

Robin Pocornie is disappointed: “I expected a different outcome. The facts remain as they are: I had to take my exams with a light in my face, while my white fellow students did not have to do that. The Institute has also indicated that I have been discriminated against by my own university in how they handled my complaint and that is painful. However, I am happy with all the attention the case has received. I have noticed in recent months that, partially as a result of my case, educational institutions have started to think a lot more about whether the technology they use works the same for everyone. I am proud of that.”

Pocornie continues her fight against racism, also within technology: “As a computer scientist and as a person of color, I understand very well how institutional racism can manifest itself in technology. So I continue to fight for a society in which everyone is treated equally.”

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