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U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) today spoke on the Senate floor about his efforts to hold Big Tech accountable to American consumers. Thune discussed his Political Bias in Algorithm Sorting (BIAS) Emails Act, legislation that would prohibit large online platforms from censoring emails through filtered algorithms. It would also provide much-needed transparency for consumers by revealing Big Tech’s censoring practices that are used to filter certain emails. Thune has also introduced the Filter Bubble Transparency Act and the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, two additional measures that are aimed at holding Big Tech accountable.
Thune’s remarks below (as prepared for delivery):
“Mr. President, former Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, writing with Jared Cohen, once said that ‘modern technology platforms’ are, quote, ‘even more powerful than most people realize,’ and that, quote, ‘our future world will be profoundly altered by their adoption and successfulness in societies everywhere.’
“There is no question that Big Tech plays an ever-increasing role in our lives.
“I imagine most of us wouldn’t even be able to count the number of times a day we interact with technology platforms, from checking our email to spending time on social media to searching on Google.
“And the pandemic only accelerated that trend, as our reliance on technology for everything from social connection to food delivery increased.
“Mr. President, I don’t need to tell anyone that technology platforms offer a lot of benefits.
“They are sources of entertainment and information.
“They make it easier to stay close to distant loved ones.
“They allow us to shop, and conduct business, and connect with friends, and advocate for causes we believe in.
“But I also don’t need to tell anyone that technology platforms have a more problematic side as well.
“One big problem arises from the increasing ability Big Tech has to shape the information we see through the use of opaque algorithms.
“Gone are the days when you logged into Facebook and just consumed content that had been posted chronologically since your previous log-in.
“Now Facebook – and other social media platforms – use algorithms to shape your newsfeed and provide suggestions for additional content, emphasizing posts the platforms think you’ll be interested in and deemphasizing other posts.
“Now obviously algorithms are not all bad.
“Most of us like it when YouTube automatically plays another video by our favorite band, instead of switching to something completely unrelated.
“But if a 15-year-old kid watches a video and then YouTube’s algorithms lead him or her down a path of inappropriate videos … well, that’s a problem.
“A 2021 Wall Street Journal investigation into TikTok revealed how easy it is for young users to be bombarded with inappropriate and disturbing content.
“And thanks to limited or opaque disclosures, people are often not aware of just how much their experience on technology platforms is being shaped by opaque algorithms.
“When we search for something on Google, most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that Google is tailoring our search results to what it thinks we want to see – or what it wants us to see.
“But the fact of the matter is that almost all of the information being presented to us by Big Tech platforms like social media and Google is being filtered and tailored to us.
“And while, again, this can have a positive side, it can also have negative consequences, ranging from political polarization to addictive behavior.
“And as technology platforms play an ever-more-dominant role in our lives, I believe that platforms should be required to make users aware of the fact that an algorithm is controlling the content they see.
“To that end, I have offered multiple pieces of legislation to increase Big Tech’s transparency and give consumers more control over their experience.
“My bipartisan Filter Bubble Transparency Act would require large-scale internet platforms to notify users that the content they are seeing has been selected for them by secret algorithms – creating a unique universe of information for each user, a phenomenon that’s often referred to as the “filter bubble.”
“Platforms would also be required to give users the choice to switch to a version of the platform that is filter-bubble free.
“I’ve also introduced the bipartisan Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, or PACT Act, to shed greater light on the secretive content moderation processes internet platforms use.
“The PACT Act would require internet platforms to prepare biannual transparency reports outlining material they’ve removed from their sites or chosen to deemphasize.
“These reports would have to be made available to the public – and not in intentionally complicated legalese.
“Platforms would have to provide clearly understandable versions of these reports to consumers.
“The PACT Act would also require technology platforms to provide consumers with greater due process when it comes to content these platforms remove or otherwise moderate.
“So if Facebook, for example, removed one of your posts, it would have to tell you why, and it would have to provide a way for you to appeal that decision.
“Mr. President, today I am introducing a third piece of legislation to increase transparency and accountability at Big Tech – the Political Bias in Algorithm Sorting Emails Act, otherwise known as the Political BIAS Emails Act.
“The Political BIAS Emails Act is intended to address the problem political campaigns on both sides of the aisle have faced in getting their campaign emails to Americans.
“A recent study from North Carolina State University found that during the 2020 election cycle, Google’s Gmail – the largest email provider in the United States – sent greater numbers of Republican campaign emails to spam folders, while Yahoo and Outlook sent greater numbers of Democrat campaign emails to spam, albeit by lesser margins than Google did for Republican campaign emails.
“That’s a problem.
“Americans should have access to political communications from both parties so that they can make their own informed decisions on what candidates they wish to support.
“Disproportionately filtering out information from candidates of one party – or from a certain candidate within a particular political party, as happened during the Democrat presidential primary – skews the information available to Americans.
“And I do not believe that Big Tech should be deciding what information individuals receive.
“Americans are free to opt out of whatever email communications they wish, including political communications, but Big Tech should not be making that decision for them.
“My Political BIAS Emails Act would prohibit email services from using filtering algorithms on emails sent from political campaigns where the candidate is running for federal office.
“Gmail and other email services’ inboxing practices are a black box to consumers, and they operate with little accountability.
“To address this, my legislation would require email services to submit transparency reports noting the number of emails from both Republican and Democrat campaigns flagged as spam, as well as provide information to political campaigns on request to help ensure that voters are receiving relevant information on every candidate’s policy positions.
“This legislation would help ensure that Americans, not Big Tech, are making the decisions on what campaign communications they want to receive.
“Mr. President, internet platforms have enhanced Americans’ lives in a number of ways.
“But as these platforms play an ever-greater role in shaping the information we receive, it is vital that we insist on adequate transparency and ensure that Americans are given the opportunity to opt out of the filter bubble.
“I will continue to work to advance the various bills that I have introduced to promote greater transparency in Big Tech.
“And as ranking member of the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, I will continue to focus on ways to ensure that Big Tech is accountable to consumers.
“Mr. President, I yield the floor.”