Bipartisan legislation tackles tech companies' algorithms that select what info to display

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A bipartisan group of House lawmakers wants to force tech companies to give users options for algorithms — the formulas that determine what information reaches users and the order in which data such as Google search results are presented.

Legislation introduced Tuesday would make the tech companies offer alternative algorithms or ranking systems that the government deems to be transparent, though the companies could still offer not-government-approved algorithms. It would be up to users to decide which to deploy.

Tech platforms such as Facebook and Google use algorithms to determine things such as which search results appear in response to a query.

“Consumers should have the option to engage with internet platforms without being manipulated by secret algorithms driven by user-specific data,” said Rep. Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican and one of the bill’s authors.

He introduced the legislation alongside Reps. David Cicilline, Rhode Island Democrat, Burgess Owens, Utah Republican, and Lori Trahan, Massachusetts Democrat.

The Filter Bubble Transparency Act would create a requirement that forces companies to show people “unmanipulated content” that is not determined by data collected from users, according to draft legislation shared with The Washington Times.

The Federal Trade Commission would be responsible for enforcing the law and for imposing civil penalties for noncompliance.

The algorithms rely on many factors, like chronology or user behavior, and critics have assailed tech companies’ ranking formulas for spreading misinformation and censoring speakers that the companies dislike.

Some prominent social media platforms already provide differing options for people who do not want tech companies to refer content to people based on inferences that the companies make about people’s behavior. For example, Twitter gives its users the option to sort information by chronology, “latest Tweets,” or by an algorithm making recommendations, “Home Tweets.”

The new bipartisan proposal focuses on a company’s “opaque algorithm,” which the proposal says means a ranking system for information that uses data from people when those people did not expressly provide the data for the ranking system.

One year after the proposal becomes law, platforms using their algorithms must explain that they are operating an opaque algorithm and must include a version of the platform that uses an “input-transparent algorithm,” meaning a ranking system that does not rely on user data.

The bill’s intended targets are large technology companies, which Mr. Buck’s office indicated are those that collect data from more than 1 million users and have $50 million or more in gross annual revenue. The legislation also exempts companies meeting certain criteria, such as having fewer than 500 employees or for researchers that are not seeking a profit.

“Facebook and other dominant platforms manipulate their users through opaque algorithms that prioritize growth and profit over everything else,” said Mr. Cicilline in a statement. “And due to these platforms’ monopoly power and dominance, users are stuck with few alternatives to this exploitative business model, whether it is in their social media feed, on paid advertisements, or in their search results.”

Large and prominent tech platforms are likely to oppose the legislation, as their algorithms are a crucial part of what differentiates them from their competitors. Chamber of Progress CEO Adam Kovacevich, whose liberal advocacy group has partnered with large tech companies like Amazon and Google, said the legislation is unconstitutional.

“The bill inserts the federal government into the design and editorial judgments of FB, Twitter, and [YouTube] — a pretty obvious unconstitutional violation of platforms’ First Amendment rights to rank content however they want,” Mr. Kovacevich wrote on Twitter.

Mr. Kovacevich said the legislation’s requirement for people to see unmanipulated content might prevent Google from filtering out things like scams and pornography in its search results.

While the House bill faces numerous obstacles, it has key allies in the Senate. In 2019, Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, introduced a version of the legislation alongside Sens. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican; Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat; Jerry Moran, Kansas Republican; and Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat.

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