Lawmakers come for Facebook algorithm with ‘filter bubble’ bill

by Susan

Facebook’s algorithm sucks, and Congress wants to do something about it.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing forward what it’s titled the “Filter Bubble Transparency Act.” Axios got a copy of the proposed legislation, which would require companies like Meta (yes, Facebook) to, simply put, provide users with an option to opt out of algorithmic content feeds (like Facebook’s News Feed or Instagram’s feed) based on personal data.

In other words, the bill is aimed at the heart of what makes Facebook and Instagram so addictive — and, lawmakers argued in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol building, deadly.

“The algorithms Facebook uses to maximize user engagement on its platform undermine our shared sense of objective reality, intensify fringe political beliefs, facilitate connections between extremist users, and, tragically, lead some of them to commit real-world physical violence, such as what we experienced firsthand on January 6th,” Representatives Anna G. Eshoo of California and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey wrote in a January letter addressed to Mark Zuckerberg.

The Filter Bubble Transparency Act, introduced by Representatives Ken Buck of Colorado, David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Lori Trahan of Massachusetts, and Burgess Owens of Utah, would require a subset of online content providers (the big ones) to offer users what it terms an “input-transparent algorithm.”

“The term ‘input-transparent algorithm means an algorithmic ranking-system that does not use user-specific data to determine the order or manner that information is furnished to any given user on a covered internet platform, unless the user-specific data is expressly provided to the platform by the user for such purpose.”

What this means, in layman’s terms, is that a company like Meta (aka Facebook) would need to provide Instagram users with a feed option that wasn’t based on data it collected on them from across the web. For example, Facebook tracks users’ shopping habits across the web. If this bill were to become law, then Instagram would need to offer users a version of its feed that wasn’t affected by that data.

Notably, the bill would not just apply to Facebook — other large tech companies like Twitter would likely fall under the legislation as well (though Twitter already offers users a reverse-chronological timeline). The legislation also carves out numerous exceptions for companies that employ less than 500 people, or possess data on less than 1,000,000 people, for example.

SEE ALSO: People are fighting algorithms for a more just and equitable future. You can, too.

We reached out to Facebook for comment, and asked if it believed it is being specifically targeted with this legislation. We also asked if Instagram would offer users a reverse chronological feed were the Filter Bubble Transparency Act to become law. We received no immediate response.

Maybe, in time, our email will sort its way to the top of Facebook’s internal press feed.

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