U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, today discussed his Filter Bubble Transparency Act, bipartisan legislation he introduced last week that would require large-scale internet platforms to provide greater transparency to users and give more control to consumers over what they choose to view on online platforms. Thune also discussed the urgent need for Democrats to stop blocking the defense appropriations bill, which funds the military and our men and women in uniform.
Click here to watch Thune’s speech.
Thune’s remarks below (as prepared for delivery):
“Mr. President, the internet has brought Americans a host of benefits – a wealth of information at our fingertips, unparalleled convenience, new opportunities for education and commerce, and innumerable new methods of communication.
“But I don’t need to tell anyone that along with the countless benefits of the internet have come a number of concerns.
“One thing that’s on the mind of many consumers is privacy.
“As the internet gradually permeates every area of our lives, internet companies become the repository for an ever-increasing amount of our personal data – from what we ate for dinner last night to the temperature we like to keep our house.
“As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, I spend a lot of time focused on data privacy issues.
“This past June, I convened a hearing entitled “Optimizing for Engagement: Understanding the Use of Persuasive Technology on Internet Platforms,” where we heard from a variety of experts about the ways companies use consumers’ personal data to determine what individuals see online.
“As I said at the time, one reason I decided to hold the hearing was to inform legislation I was developing that would require internet platforms to give consumers the option to engage without having the experience shaped by algorithms driven by user-specific data.
“And last Thursday I introduced that legislation, the Filter Bubble Transparency Act, here in the Senate.
“I’m proud to have a number of bipartisan co-sponsors on this bill.
“Senator Blumenthal, Senator Moran, Senator Blackburn, and Senator Warner have all co-sponsored this legislation, and I’m grateful for their support.
“Mr. President, the Filter Bubble Transparency Act is designed to address one aspect of the data privacy problem – the issues that arise from internet companies’ use of consumers’ personal data to shape what consumers see on their platforms.
“Many people are unaware that much of the content they see on internet platforms is determined by sophisticated algorithms and artificial intelligence that draw on data about each consumer’s online activity.
“For example, a recent Pew Research Center study found that 53 percent of U.S. adults don’t understand how Facebook’s News Feed works.
“Many of us know that Netflix is curating recommendations specifically for us based on the movies and shows we’ve watched.
“And a lot of us are aware that Amazon is delivering product recommendations based on our purchase history.
“But the reality is that internet companies have moved far beyond just recommending TV shows.
“Increasingly, every aspect of our online experience is personalized based on the vast amount of information companies collect about us – from our age and occupation to how many times we visit certain websites.
“The data used by these companies to make predictions about us comes from a wide range of sources – from smart devices like Alexa, Google Assistant, Ring doorbells, and Nest devices; to scanned emails and documents; to data acquired from third parties like banks, credit card processors, and health data services, among many other sources.
“This data is used to make statistical predictions about how we’ll behave.
“And this statistical prediction-making is happening on a massive scale.
“For example, Facebook has stated that the artificial intelligence it uses for its News Feed can make 6 million predictions per second.
“Billions of people are being fed content on internet platforms that is basically selected for them by algorithms trying to make predictions about what will keep each user engaged on the platform.
“And clearly, the powerful mechanisms behind these platforms meant to enhance engagement also have the ability – or at least the potential – to influence the thoughts and behaviors of literally billions of people.
“That is why there is widespread unease about the power of these platforms, and why it is important for the public to better understand how these platforms use the information they collect to make predictions about our behavior.
“As I’ve said, a significant cause for concern is that most people are not always aware that the information they see is being filtered.
“We’re trapped in what one observer has termed the “filter bubble” – our own private world of filtered search results and tailored content – without even knowing that we’re there.
“There are real concerns that the ever-increasing use of filters to shape our internet experience contributes to political polarization, social isolation, and addiction, as well as permitting companies to manipulate user behavior.
“My bill, the Filter Bubble Transparency Act, takes aim at these concerns by requiring major internet platforms to notify consumers that the information they’re seeing has been selected for them using filters based on their personal data.
“It would also require these sites to give consumers the option of seeing unfiltered results.
“Twitter provides a good example of what the Filter Bubble Transparency Act would do.
“Twitter gives consumers an option to view an unfiltered timeline through the use of a prominently displayed icon that’s easy to access throughout a user’s time on the platform.
“Consumers have the option of viewing the timeline that Twitter has curated for them – which pushes the posts Twitter thinks they want to see to the top of their feed – or viewing an unfiltered timeline that features all posts in chronological order.
“That’s the kind of option that my bill would give to consumers.
“Consumers would be able to choose whether to see an unfiltered social media feed or search results, or whether to view the curated or personalized content that the site chooses for them.
“And they’d be able to easily switch back and forth between the two options whenever they wanted.
“After all, consumers may want to see filter-driven content sometimes.
“I certainly prefer to see Netflix recommendations that are tailored to my viewing history.
“And if you have 1,000 tweets to read, it can be useful to see the ones you’re most likely to be interested in at the top of your feed.
“But consumers should also have the option to escape from the filter bubble – to see information that has not been selected specifically for them.
“I strongly support a light-touch approach to internet regulation that allows the free market to flourish.
“The internet would not have grown the way it has if it had been weighed down with heavy-handed government regulations.
“But in order for free markets to work effectively, consumers need as much information as possible – including a better understanding of how internet platforms use artificial intelligence and complex filters to shape the information users receive.
“My bill would provide transparency and consumer control without jeopardizing the opportunity and innovation we’ve come to expect from the tech industry.
“Mr. President, as internet companies collect and make use of more and more of our personal information, it’s important that consumers know how their data is being used.
“And at an even more basic level, it’s important for consumers to know that their data is being used to curate the content they see.
“And that is exactly what the Filter Bubble Transparency Act would do.
“I look forward to working with my colleagues to advance this legislation and continue the Senate’s broader debate on data privacy.”