iRights.Lab and the Ber­tels­mann Foun­da­tion present Algo.Rules

Foto: Yannick Haan

Algo­rithms increas­ing­ly make deci­sions for and about peo­ple, thus play­ing a deter­min­ing role in social par­tic­i­pa­tion. Rules are need­ed to ensure that dig­i­tal­iza­tion is able to cre­ate more oppor­tu­ni­ties for every­one. To this end, the Ber­tels­mann Foun­da­tion and iRights.Lab have devel­oped the Algo.Rules: guide­lines which seek to anchor eth­i­cal stan­dards in pro­gram­ming code.

The deci­sions made by algo­rith­mic sys­tems sig­nif­i­cantly impact our lives. The Ber­tels­mann Foun­da­tion and the inde­pen­dent think tank iRights.Lab, through a broad, par­tic­i­pa­tive process, have thus for­mu­lat­ed and pre­sent­ed a set of rules for the devel­op­ment of algo­rith­mic sys­tems. These so-called “Algo.Rules” are a set of for­mal cri­te­ria that seek to enable and facil­i­tate the design of algo­rith­mic sys­tems in a way that is ben­e­fi­cial to soci­ety. These rules lay the ground­work for mean­ing­ful eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions and for the imple­men­ta­tion and enforce­ment of a work­ing legal frame­work in the age of algo­rithms. They present cri­te­ria that should already be taken into account as sys­tems are being devel­oped and that are thus imple­ment­ed “by design.” The Algo.Rules are direct­ed at any­one who has a sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence on the cre­ation, devel­op­ment, and appli­ca­tion of algo­rith­mic sys­tems. For Jörg Dräger, CEO of the Ber­tels­mann Foun­da­tion, the need for a good set of rules for algo­rithms is beyond doubt: “We must carry exist­ing social norms with us into the dig­i­tal age. We thus need rules for all those who work with, design or apply algo­rithms.”

Algo­rith­mic sys­tems are employed in an ever-grow­ing num­ber of areas. With their help, deci­sions are made that have a sig­nif­i­cant impact on our lives. They entail both oppor­tu­ni­ties and risks. It is up to us to work togeth­er to ensure that algo­rith­mic sys­tems are designed for the ben­e­fit of soci­ety. They should strength­en, rather that cur­tail, the indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive free­doms and rights that are expressed and under­stood as inalien­able human rights. Reg­u­la­tions designed to pro­tect these stan­dards must remain enforce­able. To achieve this, we have devel­oped the Algo.Rules togeth­er with experts and inter­est­ed mem­bers of the pub­lic.

The cri­te­ria are the result of an exten­sive devel­op­ment and par­tic­i­pa­tion process: they were for­mu­lat­ed in work­shops with experts, through tele­phone inter­views, and on the basis of a large-scale online sur­vey. In total, about 400 peo­ple from var­i­ous sec­tions of soci­ety and a broad array of sci­en­tif­ic dis­ci­plines took part. Accord­ing to Philipp Otto, direc­tor of the inde­pen­dent think tank iRights.lab, “The broad par­tic­i­pa­to­ry process that went into devel­op­ing the Algo.Rules was inspir­ing and stim­u­lat­ing. We rec­og­nized very quick­ly the enor­mous need for cri­te­ria like those we are now pre­sent­ing, a set of rules that has been des­per­ate­ly miss­ing.”

One of the experts involved is Sabine Leutheuss­er-Schnar­ren­berg­er, for­mer Fed­er­al Min­is­ter of Jus­tice: “The Algo.Rules are an exam­ple of how solu­tions can emerge from soci­ety and thus inde­pen­dent­ly of the polit­i­cal and leg­isla­tive process. We hope to ren­der them bind­ing and are work­ing towards imple­ment­ing and fur­ther devel­op­ing the points that have emerged. We are demon­strat­ing how to use­ful­ly apply legal reg­u­la­tions and nor­ma­tive val­ues to algo­rith­mic sys­tems. Ulti­mate­ly, nei­ther pol­i­tics, nor busi­ness, nor soci­ety alone can ensure that an eth­i­cal and legal frame­work is adhered to. This depends on the inter­ac­tion of all actors. The Algo.Rules are a very con­crete result of this insight, and they rep­re­sent some­thing that has never been done before.”

The Algo.Rules are an impor­tant first step, a novel attempt to design algo­rith­mic sys­tems in the pub­lic inter­est. In the next phase of the project, Ber­tels­mann Foun­da­tion and iRights.Lab will spec­i­fy the rules for dif­fer­ent tar­get groups – pro­gram­mers and man­agers in the pri­vate sec­tor – and devel­op imple­men­ta­tion strate­gies. Here too, accord­ing to Dräger, “We can­not approach the task of elab­o­rat­ing the details of the Algo.Rules alone. We thus call on orga­ni­za­tions and indi­vid­u­als who devel­op and imple­ment algo­rith­mic sys­tems to par­tic­i­pate!”

The Algo.Rules (in Eng­lish) can be found on the web­site www.algorules.org or here (PDF).

The press release, includ­ing con­tacts, can be found here as a PDF file.