Republican Senator wants Google and Facebook to have algorithm

The US Senate subcommittee will hear a bill to allow users to exclude their own data from being used by platforms in the delivery of content. (AFP pic)

WASHINGTON: Senator John Thune is preparing legislation that would give users the option to use big internet platforms such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. without algorithms driving what content they see.

“The powerful mechanisms behind these platforms meant to enhance engagement also have the ability, or at least the potential, to influence the thoughts and behaviours of literally billions of people,” Thune said Tuesday at a Senate subcommittee hearing on “persuasive technology.”

The comments by the Senate’s No. 2 Republican represent a relatively new front in Washington’s growing focus on the impact of the big technology platforms on consumers. Policy-makers are starting to zero in on the algorithms that underlie how the platforms operate as a potential area for regulation and a way to address controversial online content such as hate speech and misinformation.

Thune cited an April investigation by Bloomberg into Google’s YouTube and its failure to tackle false, incendiary and toxic content as it sought to boost views and time spent on its platform. The article demonstrated that “the use of artificial intelligence and algorithms to optimise engagement can have an unintended and possibly even dangerous downside,” Thune said.

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The South Dakota senator said his bill would allow users to exclude their own data from being used by platforms in the delivery of content.

“Congress has a role to play in ensuring companies have the freedom to innovate, but in a way that keeps consumers’ interests and well-being at the forefront of their progress,” he said.

Maggie Stanphill, Google’s director of user experience, said during her testimony that the company doesn’t use “persuasive technology,” but that increasing transparency into how algorithms decide what users see would be “a good interim step.” She agreed that increased human oversight of decisions about content would be good.

YouTube recently made changes to its algorithms the recommend content that decreased views of problematic material resulting from the suggestions by more than half, said Stanphill. The videos that weren’t recommended came “close to violating our policies or spread harmful misinformation.”

Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a Democrat on the committee, expressed scepticism at Stanphill’s claims and said companies should face “legal and financial responsibility” for the performance of the algorithms.

In an interview after the hearing, Schatz said the committee had invited YouTube Chief Executive Officer Susan Wojcicki, but Google instead sent Stanphill, who repeatedly said that questions were outside of her purview. Schatz said he wants tech companies to send their top executives to tech and privacy hearings.

Google didn’t immediately respond to Schatz’s claim.