Let's Not Have a Bunch of Posturing Politicians Decide How Online Algorithms Should Work

The latest bill to “fight big tech” could turn your online experience into a miserable slog.


A handful of lawmakers are pushing a bill that would make it harder for online search algorithms to give you what you want—yet another example of why it's bad to give politicians power over tech policy.

A bipartisan pack of senators and congressmen led by Sen. John Thune (R–S.D.) have introduced what they're calling the Filter Bubble Transparency Act. The legislation essentially aims to stop major platforms and search engines from algorithmically determining what they show you based on information you did not purposefully give them. It refers to these as "opaque algorithms," because you as a user may not know exactly what factors are contributing to these search results or information displays. The theory is that platforms are secretly manipulating what you see in order to sell you things, conceal controversial content, and give priority to certain goods or services or sources of information.

It may sound good in theory to forbid sites from using secret data to decide what to show you. But this bill will be a disaster if it passes.

Some of the information that algorithms use that you don't know about isn't actually data you're trying to keep secret or private. It's just data about what you're doing that helps it show you what you want to see. Over at TechDirt, Michael Masnick notes the far-reaching implications of clamping down on this. For example, that data would include such basic information as whether you're accessing a page on a laptop or a mobile device. Remember the days of trying to look at an entire web page on your phone? Nobody wants that.

Masnick further explains that the bill doesn't do what the legislators think it will do—and that, to the extent that there is a legitimate concern here, social media feeds have already given users control over what they see: "even if the bill were clarified in a bill-of-attainder fashion to make it clear it only applies to social media news feeds, it still won't do much good. Both Facebook and Twitter already let you set up a chronological feed if you want it." (Of note, though: Some Facebook users report that the feed keeps reverting to the default "top stories" algorithmic curation.)

There's nothing new about lawmakers being completely out of grip in reality with their tech regulation proposals. One of the bill's co-sponsors Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), last seen going after Amazon for having the temerity to sell its own brand of products on its site, something nearly every major retail chain does. About this particular piece of legislation, he tells Axios:

Facebook and other dominant platforms manipulate their users through opaque algorithms that prioritize growth and profit over everything else. 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.

The lawmaker's ignorance here is not unlike his insistence that Amazon is using its own brand to create a monopoly on goods on its own site and concealing competitors, when simply searching any product on the site will show that's just not true.

We don't need a bunch of lawmakers who don't even know how social media functions to tell tech companies how algorithms should be implemented. As Masnick puts it, "It seems like the only purpose this legislation actually serves to accomplish is to let these politicians stand up in front of the news media and claim they're 'taking on big tech!' and smile disingenuously."