Senate Bill Calls For Search Engines to Divulge Algorithms

For search engines such as Alphabet’s Google, their algorithms are the secret sauce that they claim gives the best results. Not all consumers agree with that, arguing that these algorithms filter their searches in a way that is tantamount to censorship. Now, a bipartisan group of legislators proposed the Filter Bubble Transparency Act, a law that would require search engines and platforms to provide an optional unfiltered search and force them to disclose the algorithms they use to rank searches.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota), who filed the bill, noted that, “people are increasingly impatient with the lack of transparency.” The measure, he added is “a way of giving consumers more control, consistent with the light touch approach I believe in.”

One of Thune’s concerns is “the potential for search algorithms to be used to prey on users’ emotions, seeking to stir anger and prolonging their use of a service, for example.” The measure describes an unfiltered search as one that “wouldn’t consider user-specific profile data — such as the user’s geographic location and search and browsing history — in formulating search results unless the user expressly provides such data to the platform for purposes of the search.”

The proposed law, which would be enforced by the FCC, would only apply to platforms with more than 500 employees or $50 million in revenue, or those that “collect or process the personal data” of more than one million people. WSJ notes that “the bill represents the most serious legislative effort to date to put limits on the use of online algorithms.”

Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), a co-sponsor of the measure, noted it “could become an element of a broader Senate privacy bill that lawmakers are hoping to weave together in coming weeks.” At a hearing in mid-November, legislators plan to “hammer out agreements on what will go in a Senate privacy package.”

Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia) said that consumers have a “limited understanding of how their data is being used and how platforms operate.” “This bill helps reduce the power of opaque algorithms on our discourse and put greater control in the hands of consumers,” he said.