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Vol.17 Issue 1 (2021)

Recommender Systems and Autonomy: A Role for Regulation of Design, Rights, and Transparency

Christian Djeffal, Christina Hitrova & Eduardo Magrani

Recommender systems are now widely deployed across multiple dimensions of the digital reality that increasingly shapes our lives. In doing so, they mould individual thoughts and actions and can affect individual and collective autonomy. In this paper we first discuss how the ubiquitous exercise of ‘soft’ power by recommender systems on individual users presents interference into individual autonomy and its legal dimensions, expressed through collective and individual self-determination, democratic values and institutions, as well as individual human rights and freedoms. We then argue that this exercise of power over individual and collective destinies necessitates regulatory action to establish an appropriate system of checks and balances on recommender systems and their creators. Utilising a bottom-up approach, we look at the fundamental aspects of a recommender system’s design and functioning that shape the impact these algorithms have on individual autonomy. On the basis of this, we identify three key areas where regulation can be targeted in order to empower users and address current power imbalances - (1) algorithmic design, (2) data protection rights, and (3) transparency and oversight. We map the key questions and options for future regulatory action in each of these domains, highlighting the decisions and competing interests that regulators will need to consider. We conclude by discussing the policy implications of this mapping of the debate and the relevance they have for the future of recommender systems regulation.


Christian Djeffal is Assistant Professor for Law, Science and Technology at the Technical University of Munich. He researches and lectures on the relationship between law and digital technology.

Christina Hitrova works on Responsible AI with PricewaterhouseCoopers (Czech Republic) and previously researched and consulted stakeholders on the links between law, ethics and technology at the Technical University of Munich and The Alan Turing Institute.

Eduardo Magrani is a Doctor of Laws and an Affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He is also the President of the National Institute for Data Protection in Brazil and Partner at Demarest Advogados.

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