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.{mosads}

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 Thune (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 Warner (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 Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Jerry Moran (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.” 

Tags Jerry Moran John Thune Mark Warner Marsha Blackburn

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