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 GOP waves Trump off early motion to dismiss impeachment charges Trump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump 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: Federal inquiry opened into Google health data deal | Facebook reports millions of post takedowns | Microsoft shakes up privacy debate | Disney plus tops 10M sign-ups in first day Microsoft embraces California law, shaking up privacy debate Google sparks new privacy fears over health care data 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 BlackburnTrump circuit court nominee in jeopardy amid GOP opposition Progressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising On The Money: US paid record .1B in tariffs in September | Dems ramp up oversight of 'opportunity zones' | Judge hints at letting House lawsuit over Trump tax returns proceed MORE (R-Tenn.), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranMicrosoft embraces California law, shaking up privacy debate It's time for Congress to establish a national mental health crisis number Overnight Defense: Top diplomat changes testimony to indicate quid pro quo | Dem offers measure on Turkish human rights abuses in Syria | Warren offers plan to address veteran suicide rates 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.”