U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, questioned witnesses about the need for more algorithm transparency during a Commerce Committee hearing, titled “Protecting Consumer Privacy.” Thune highlighted the algorithmic practices used by big tech companies to analyze consumer data. Earlier this year, Thunereintroduced the bipartisan Filter Bubble Transparency Act that would require large-scale internet platforms that collect data from more than 1 million users and gross more than $50 million per year to provide greater transparency for consumers and allow users to view content that has not been curated by a secret algorithm.
Thune’s opening remarks below (as prepared for delivery):
“Thank you, Chair Cantwell and Ranking Member Wicker, for holding today’s hearing. I firmly believe that enacting comprehensive privacy legislation should be a top priority of this Committee. Since we began privacy conversations in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal when I served as Chairman of this Committee, I’ve stated that there is no question we need a federal law to protect consumers’ privacy, and I do not believe we should relinquish our responsibility by simply increasing our federal bureaucracy by putting a significant amount of funding at the FTC.
“So it is my hope that we can work together in a bipartisan fashion to establish a uniform national policy. I’ve pushed for more transparency about the algorithms used by big tech companies to analyze consumer data and make predictions intended to influence consumer behavior.
“Many consumers are unaware that much of the content they see on internet platforms is determined by sophisticated algorithms that draw on data about each consumer’s online activity. Billions of people are being fed content on internet platforms that is basically selected for them by opaque algorithms designed to keep consumers engaged on the platform. The powerful artificial intelligence behind these platforms creates a unique universe of information for each user, a phenomenon that is often referred to as the ‘filter bubble.’
“Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Facebook altered its opaque algorithm after seeing a decline in user engagement. The change to the algorithm that was intended to optimize user engagement resulted in more divisive and manipulative content being pushed to users. This troubling report is exactly why I introduced the Filter Bubble Transparency Act, and I’m proud to have strong bipartisan support for this bill with Senators Blumenthal, Blackburn, Moran, Schatz, Warner, Collins, and Klobuchar as cosponsors.
“Our legislation would give consumers more transparency about how algorithms are used to select content they see online, and it would give consumers the option to engage with internet platforms without being manipulated by opaque algorithms.
“I’d like to ask a couple questions relating to the use of opaque algorithms.”