Today’s debates around Big Tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, or Google, among others, typically center around the ability that these platforms have to shape social media and determine the content that people see or don’t see. Little is known by consumers, or even Congress, about the secretive algorithms used by these platforms and the intentional or unintentional political biases at play, which is why I’ve long argued that these manipulative practices are worthy of congressional oversight and action. Big Tech, much like the Wizard of Oz, would prefer that we don’t look behind the curtain and instead just focus on what we can see. That will change if I have anything to say about it.
New research shows that Big Tech companies are manipulating the online experiences of millions of Americans in ways unknown before, with a demonstrated and disturbing bias against communications from Republican candidates and policymakers. Republican leaders have had enough, and we’ve introduced legislation to stop it.
Researchers at North Carolina State University recently analyzed emails sent by Republican and Democrat candidates during the 2020 election cycle. The non-partisan study found that Gmail, which is the largest email provider in the United States, sent nearly 70 percent of emails from Republican candidates to spam while allowing 90 percent of emails from Democrat candidates to sail through Google’s filtering algorithms without issue. A data discrepancy like this one can’t be ignored.
These findings are alarming on many levels, but especially when it comes to the integrity of our elections. Email is a vital method of communication for elected officials and candidates to reach voters, and it’s a problem when the most-used email provider in the United States demonstrates a pattern of limiting political discourse from one of the major political parties while essentially amplifying it for the other party. No major Big Tech company should have the ability to place its thumb on the scales by limiting the content that voters see, especially behind closed doors.
I recently pressed Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai on this issue. Google disagrees with the allegation that its e-mail filtering algorithms are politically biased. Thankfully, there’s an easy way to clear everything up: Google could be more transparent with the public about its algorithms and why Republican emails are discriminated against at such a high rate.
Or better yet, Google could leave the decision up to the consumers to make their own online decisions. That might be a novel idea to Big Tech, but it’s something American consumers are demanding now more than ever before.
This would be required of all major platforms if Congress passes my Political Bias in Algorithm Sorting (BIAS) Emails Act, which I introduced earlier this month. It would prohibit email platforms from using biased filtering algorithms on emails from federal political campaigns unless a user took a proactive action to apply a label to that email. My bill would also require these platforms to explain when emails from political candidates are marked as spam and provide transparency reports into the platform’s sorting practices.
Consumers should have the most power to determine what they do or don’t see online, especially when they have opted to receive emails in the first place. Nothing in the Political BIAS Emails Act would stop a user from marking an email they don’t want as spam – but it would prevent large platforms from trying to make those decisions for the user.
Last week, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives introduced companion legislation to the bill I introduced in the Senate. Their support and leadership will be necessary if we are going to take on the largest Big Tech companies on behalf of consumers everywhere. I’m not new to this effort. In fact, I’ve introduced multiple pieces of legislation that would also hold Big Tech accountable and empower American consumers. My Filter Bubble Transparency Act and Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act would also create meaningful change for online users, and they both enjoy bipartisan support.
Big Tech has an outsized ability to shape consumers’ online experiences, and it’s only growing. Republicans believe in empowering consumers to make their own decisions within a free market of ideas, and if we are trusted with majorities in Congress next year, we will have more tools and leverage at our disposal to hold Big Tech accountable.
The decision is up to the voters – they just might want to check their spam folders to learn more.