Senate bill takes aim at 'secret' online algorithms

Senate bill takes aim at 'secret' online algorithms
© Aaron Schwartz

A bipartisan group of senators on Thursday introduced a bill that would force large online platforms to be more transparent about how their algorithms find content to share.

The Filter Bubble Transparency Act would require companies that collect data from more than 1 million users and make more than $50 million per year to notify users that their platforms use algorithms to determine what information is shown and offer users the opportunity to opt-out of curated content.

The senators cited Twitter, which allows users to either see all of the most recent tweets or a curated list of tweets picked for users.


The bill would make it illegal to operate a large online platform using a "secret algorithm" to curate content if it meets the two requirements. The Federal Trade Commission would been given power to enforce the rule using civil penalties.

“This legislation is about transparency and consumer control,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate to vote on Trump's Canada, Mexico trade deal Thursday Senate braces for Trump impeachment trial Republicans face internal brawl over impeachment witnesses MORE (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on the internet. “For free markets to work as effectively and as efficiently as possible, consumers need as much information as possible, including a better understanding of how internet platforms use artificial intelligence and opaque algorithms to make inferences from the reams of personal data at their fingertips that can be used to affect behavior and influence outcomes.

"That’s why I believe consumers should have the option to either view a platform’s opaque algorithm-generated content or its filter bubble-free content, and, at the very least, they deserve to know how large-scale internet platforms are delivering information to their users.”

“As we’ve seen over and over, consumers have limited understanding of how their data is being used and how platforms operate,” Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: Apple, Barr clash over Pensacola shooter's phone | Senate bill would boost Huawei alternatives | DHS orders agencies to fix Microsoft vulnerability | Chrome to phase out tracking cookies Senators offer bill to create alternatives to Huawei in 5G tech Sen. Warner calls on State Department to take measures to protect against cyberattacks MORE (D-Va.) said. “This bill helps reduce the power of opaque algorithms on our discourse and put greater control in the hands of consumers.”

Sens. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnGOP senator: 2020 candidates must recuse themselves from impeachment trial Apple under pressure to unlock Pensacola shooter's phones GOP senators introduce resolution to change rules, dismiss impeachment without articles MORE (R-Tenn.), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranOvernight Defense: War powers fight runs into impeachment | Kaine has 51 votes for Iran resolution | Trump plans to divert .2B from Pentagon to border wall War powers fight in Senate runs squarely into impeachment Third GOP senator says he'll support Iran war powers resolution MORE (R-Kan.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) also co-sponsored the bill.

The term filter bubble comes from a 2009 book by Eli Pariser which argued that personalized search services and algorithms that curate content based on internet behavior can close people off from opposing viewpoints, hurting civic discourse.

“The Filter Bubble Transparency Act is a big step toward making these algorithms more visible – helping consumers understand how they work, how significant these editorial choices really are, and giving people the choice to see the world in a less filtered way," Pariser, chief executive of Upworthy, a viral news website, said in a statement Thursday.

"We need common ground and a common sense of the truth now more than ever, and I’m glad this bipartisan group of senators is taking up that important charge.”