Recent Op-Eds

Give Consumers a Choice With Their Data

By Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.)

October 12, 2021

Washington Examiner

For years now, the public has been rightfully concerned about the influence and power of Big Tech corporations and the potentially damaging effect they have on individuals’ online experiences. That is why I have authored two bipartisan bills, the Filter Bubble Transparency Act and the Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act, that would provide for common-sense and much-needed Big Tech regulation. In light of recent revelations by a Big Tech whistleblower, which I heard firsthand, these bills must be enacted without delay.

Big Tech platforms use consumers’ data in secretive ways through the use of algorithms to manipulate users’ online experiences. They also use this data to find new ways to keep billions of people engaged on their platforms. This leads to mounting concerns about harmful biases, whether data is being handled responsibly, and the troubling real-world impacts these platforms appear to have on some users, particularly young people. 

Little is known about how these companies use algorithms to amplify or suppress content or how they can affect users without their knowledge. For years, tech companies have been less than forthcoming about their practices. These algorithms are largely a black box to consumers, lawmakers, and regulators.

Because of the Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, who testified on October 5 before a Senate Commerce subcommittee on which I serve, we now have more insight into Facebook’s algorithms and its troubling practices with regard to how it amplifies or suppresses content. Worse yet, it appears Facebook often ignored internal warnings about harmful effects, and for that, there should be serious accountability.

Big Tech platforms are certainly free to deploy algorithms that select content based on what will keep each user engaged. But the platforms should not be free to keep their users unaware of the fact that an algorithm is controlling which content each consumer sees on the platform. With some rare exceptions, people aren’t given a choice to easily opt out of a black-box algorithm that secretly selects the content they see.

We’re learning more and more about what the problem is, and I have several solutions. I’ve introduced the bipartisan Filter Bubble Transparency Act, which would give consumers the privacy, choice, and transparency that has been absent on these platforms for too long. 

Specifically, large-scale internet platforms would be required to notify users that their platform uses secret algorithms to select the content they see, what’s often described as the “filter bubble.” In addition, users would be given the choice to switch to a different version of the platform that is filter bubble-free.

The Federal Trade Commission would enforce these two simple requirements, and it would be authorized to seek civil penalties for those who knowingly violate them.

At the very least, users should have the option to engage on these platforms without being manipulated by secret algorithms.

There’s also a growing bipartisan consensus that we need to shed a greater light on the secretive content moderation processes social media companies use. That’s why I’ve introduced the bipartisan PACT Act, which would require internet platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to make biannual reports outlining material they’ve removed from their sites or chosen to deemphasize available to the public — and not just in intentionally complicated, hard-to-understand legalese. Sites would be required to provide an easily digestible disclosure of their content-moderation practices.

Tech companies would have to give each user due process protections by explaining their decisions when they remove material from being seen by consumers. If the user whose content was taken down disagreed with the platform’s decision, the user would be entitled to an appeals process as well.

No more censoring stories without explanation or deplatforming people based on their political beliefs. 

The people deserve to know much more about how Big Tech companies are handling their data and controlling the online experience. Big Tech has operated in the dark for too long. It’s long past time that Congress enacts meaningful, bipartisan Big Tech regulation by passing the Filter Bubble Transparency Act and the PACT Act.