Bipartisan bill aims to force algorithm-free feeds, limiting Big Tech’s potential to game their systems

The news: A bipartisan group of US House lawmakers introduced the “Filter Bubble Transparency Act,” which could force social media platforms to allow users to use their services without algorithms that filter or prioritize the content users see.

Why it’s worth watching: The bill, which is authored by three co-sponsors, Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), and Burgess Owens (R-Utah), joins similar legislation proposed in the Senate, indicating lawmakers continue to have Big Tech in their sights.

  • Focus on social media’s use of algorithms has been front and center in Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimonies—particularly on Facebook’s engagement-based algorithms, which have been deemed detrimental to teens’ mental health.
  • “Facebook and other dominant platforms manipulate their users through opaque algorithms that prioritize growth and profit over everything else,” Cicilline said in a statement. “And due to these platforms’ monopoly power and dominance, users are stuck with few alternatives to this exploitative business model, whether it is in their social media feed, on paid advertisements, or in their search results.”
  • “Consumers should have the option to engage with internet platforms without being manipulated by secret algorithms driven by user-specific data,” Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) said in a statement to Ars Technica. 

What’s next? If successful, the bill would require social media sites to post a notice the first time users interact with an “opaque” algorithm—”which determines the order of manner that information is furnished to a user." 

  • Social media companies would also be required to offer users the option to turn these opaque algorithms on or off.

What’s the catch? Social media services like Facebook will fight to maintain their algorithms by arguing that removing or tampering with these will result in poor user experience.

  • Pursuing this legislation will also require expertise and resources on the part of regulators to demystify Big Tech algorithms, which could prolong the process or at least give Big Tech enough time to make adjustments.