As the House Judiciary Committee addresses censorship by social media companies, a privacy advocate is asking Congress to require the companies to make public their algorithms, the computer coding that buries some content sources and promotes others.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center, in a letter to the chairmen of the committee, Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., urged fairness, transparency and accountability for the megacorporations that decide “what users see online.”
Google, for example, already has been fined billions by the European Commission for “abusing dominance” in his search engine results.
The investigation found Google gave an illegal advantage to its own shopping services, which breached antitrust standards.
At that time, Commissioner Margrethe Vestager explained: “Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That’s a good thing. But Google’s strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn’t just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.”
That “demoting” of competitors was simply a manipulation of computer coding to injure Google competitors financially, the commission found.
“What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation,” the ruling said.
Now the House Judiciary Committee is taking up the issue, with plans for a hearing on “Filtering Practices of Social Media Companies.”
EPIC said that several years ago it “encountered the problem of opaque algorithms deployed by a dominant platform.”
“At the time, EPIC, an organization whose mission is to educate the public about emerging privacy issues, provided several videos that were among the top-ranked search results on YouTube for a search on ‘privacy.’ At the time, YouTube’s search results were organized by the objective criteria of ‘hits’ and ‘viewer rankings.’ Both of these are objective criteria and easy to verify.”
But after Google acquired YouTube, EPIC’s search rankings fell.
“Google had substituted its own subjective, ‘relevance’ ranking in place of objective search criteria,” EPIC said. “Google’s ranking algorithm was opaque and proprietary. And significantly, Google’s subjective algorithm preferenced Google’s video content on YouTube concerning ‘privacy’ over that of EPIC and others. Suddenly, the Google videos rose in the rankings.”
EPIC said Google’s acquisition of YouTube “led to a skewing of search results after Google substituted its secret ‘relevance’ ranking.”
The significance? Online revenue is linked to those rankings, and if a company such as Google can suppress other videos and promote its own, it gets more money.
The European Commission found the same thing out about Google. The company’s “illegal practices,” the commission said, cause a plunge in competitors’ traffic.
“Since the beginning of each abuse, Google’s comparison shopping service has increased its traffic 45-fold in the United Kingdom, 35-fold in Germany, 19-fold in France, 29-fold in the Nethehlands, 17-fold in Spain and 14-fold in Italy,” the report said.
Said EPIC: “Algorithms that rank and index search results must be scrutinized for distorting web users’ access to information with limited transparency and accountability. Virtually every search engine, social media company, and web operator develops its own unique algorithm to curate content for individual users to control how information is fetched and displayed form search queries.”
The dangers are that such manipulation by companies “can prevent individuals from using the Internet to exchange information on topics that may be controversial.”
It also can be used to censor items based on politics or ban access to content with a specific keyword.
“The majority of users are unaware of how algorithmic filtering restricts their access to information and do not have an option to disable filters,” EPIC said.
“Algorithmic transparency is necessary to police anti-competitive conduct by dominant platforms,” the letter said. “Algorithmic transparency will help ensure fairness, transparency, and accountability without the need to limit speech or mandate the publication of competing views.”