Proposed Bill Seeks To Limit The Audacity Of Opacity On The Internet
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Online platforms may soon face restrictions on how they use
personal data to customize content and information feeds to users.
Recently proposed bipartisan legislation in the U.S. House of
Representatives aims to fundamentally change the delivery of
content and information online by making it illegal to unknowingly
tailor a user’s experience. If passed, the proposal would
preclude online platforms from focusing search results on a
specific user based on that user’s personal data without the
user’s express consent to receiving the customized results.
Under the proposed Filter Bubble Transparency Act, H.R. 5921, an
online content provider cannot use an “opaque algorithm,”
meaning a “ranking system that determines the order or manner
that information is furnished to a user . . . based, in whole or in
part, on user-specific data[,]” to determine what information
users see and how they see it.
To overcome the restriction, the House bill requires that a user
give consent or somehow provide personal data in a manner intended
to shape the user’s experience. Otherwise, the provider must
offer users an alternative “input-transparent” version of
its platform that “does not use the user-specific data of a
user to determine the order or manner that information is furnished
to such user”. The House bill goes so far as to require that
providers employing an opaque algorithm must provide their users
with the option of turning the algorithm off “by selecting a
prominently placed icon” that instantaneously switches the
user to the input-transparent algorithm.
The proposed law applies not only to websites, but any
“covered internet platform” such as mobile apps, social
media sites, video services, and search engines.
In other words, the proposed legislation would require
developers to create two entirely different experiences or face
penalties from the Federal Trade Commission. The exact scope of the
penalties remains to be seen, but a violation would be deemed an
unfair or deceptive act or practice under the FTC Act.
Proponents view the House bill as a necessary step to stem the
misuse of user data to manipulate what the internet forces us to
consume, which has been a hot topic of recent Congressional
hearings. They worry that unwitting users exposed to manipulated
streams of information may not know how that information is getting
to them, making their user experience artificial and unauthentic.
With that in mind, the bill hopes to transfer control over the flow
of information from providers to users and curb the harmful or
addictive nature of certain sites. Lofty goals indeed. A bipartisan
Senate version of the bill, S. 2024, has also been introduced under the
So, what should a provider do in response to this proposal?
Nothing yet. When and if it becomes law, developers will have one
year to update their platform designs and the associated user
Until then, the audacity of opacity continues limited only by
the current guardrails in place.
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