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Christian Sandvig

Christian Sandvig of the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research and collaborators won the 2023 Outstanding Public Policy Research Award of the International Communication Association (ICA) at last week’s ICA Conference in Toronto. They were honored for their research on “algorithm auditing,” a technique for detecting illegal behavior by online platforms and artificial intelligence– and the impact of their legal challenge that culminated in a 2021 Supreme Court decision, clearing barriers for journalists and researchers to use the investigative technique online.

“This is the research that led us to sue the US government to change the federal hacking law,” said Sandvig, the H. Marshall McLuhan Collegiate Professor of Digital Media; professor of information, and communication and media; and director of the Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing (ESC). “Our aim was to allow computer researchers and journalists to better examine private computer systems.”

Sandvig and colleagues challenged the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which was passed in 1986 to address hacking, but could be applied to curb data uses more broadly. The ACLU provided legal representation to challenge to the constitutionality of the CFAA with the 2016 case Sandvig v. Barr, filed on behalf of academics and journalists seeking to test websites for discrimination among users. The plaintiffs in the Sandvig case were academic researchers, scientists, and journalists who sought to investigate companies’ online practices but would be limited by target websites’ terms of service. Sandvig argued that those who study potentially illegal behavior by online platforms like Google, LinkedIn and Facebook should not incur criminal and civil liability if they do not abide by a site’s posted terms of use. 

Sandvig’s work was cited by the US Supreme Court in Van Buren v. United States. The ACLU filed an amicus brief on behalf of Sandvig, and the ruling had important implications for many media and computing researchers, lifting a cloud of legal uncertainty from those who study topics from online misinformation to computer security. This was described by the ACLU as a “major victory for civil rights and civil rights enforcement.”

The ICA presented the Public Policy Research Award to Sandvig along with Esha Bhandari and Rachel Goodman of the ACLU; Karrie Karahalios of the University of Illinois and Urbana-Champaign, and Alan Mislove and Christo Wilson of Northeastern University.

Algorithm auditing was identified as one of five research strategies essential to the future of technology in the United States by the US Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The selection committee found their research “shaped the scholarly field of media” and “influenced public policy at the highest level.”

The ICA is the global scholarly association advancing academic research in communication. 

The award honors scholars who have “produced a systematic and outstanding body of research that addresses a significant communication problem of relevance to the public.”

Contact: Tevah Platt, [email protected]