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S. 2763: Filter Bubble Transparency Act


Should you have an option to opt out of personal data-influenced search results or feeds on the largest websites?

Context

The most prominent websites and internet platforms increasingly collect more and more personal data from users — most notably browsing history, search history, geographical location, and liked accounts or posts.

These in turn are used when algorithms process what appears — and the order in which it appears — on search results and news feeds.

“In a single week, I encountered over 5,400 trackers, mostly in apps,” _Washington Post _technology reporter Geoffrey Fowler wrote in an article. “According to privacy firm Disconnect, which helped test my iPhone, those unwanted trackers would have spewed out 1.5 gigabytes of data over the span of a month.”

What the bill does

The Filter Bubble Transparency Act would mandate that certain major websites offer greater transparency about when their algorithms are being utilized, to tailor results or feeds based on a user’s search history, likes, or geographical location.

Specifically, users would be notified if a website filters or orders search results or news feeds based on personal data collected from a user. Users must also be able to easily opt out of viewing a personal data-influenced version of a website.

As an example of that latter requirement, the bill’s official press release cites Twitter’s one-click option to toggle between a personalized feed and a solely chronological one.

The bill would apply to websites earning more than $50 million per year and which collect data from more than 1 million users. In practice, this means the biggest players such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, etc.

It was introduced in the Senate on October 31 as bill number S. 2763, by Sen. John Thune (R-SD).

What supporters say

Supporters argue the bill helps consumers obtain needed information about something they use daily, much like nutrition facts on food.

“For free markets to work as effectively and as efficiently as possible, consumers need as much information as possible,” Sen. Thune said in a press release, “including a better understanding of how internet platforms use artificial intelligence and opaque algorithms to make inferences from the reams of personal data at their fingertips that can be used to affect behavior and influence outcomes.”

“That’s why I believe consumers should have the option to either view a platform’s opaque algorithm-generated content or its filter bubble-free content,” Sen. Thune continued. “And, at the very least, they deserve to know how large-scale internet platforms are delivering information to their users.”

What opponents say

Opponents would likely counter that the bill inhibits one of these websites’ most user-friendly features. By customizing results to users’ demonstrated history of preferences, likes, and clicks, everything from Google search results to Amazon product listings to Facebook news feeds are better tailored to what you actually want to see.

However, neither Google nor Facebook responded to a Wall Street Journal request for comment, in their article about the bill.

Odds of passage

The bill has attracted an evenly bipartisan mix of four Senate cosponsors: two Republicans and two Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

The bipartisanship indicates this bill could potentially pass. The largest internet companies have increasingly come under fire from all sides of the political spectrum: from the left as potential antitrust violations and from the right for supposed anti-conservative bias and censorship.

Last updated Nov 8, 2019. View all GovTrack summaries.

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