Ten Terrible Tech Bills from the 117th Congress: Filter Bubble Transparency Act

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In Book VII of Plato’s Republic, Socrates introduces his allegory of the cave. Prisoners are chained in an underground cavern since birth. Their necks are bonded in a fixed position so they only see shadows on the cave wall projected by a large fire burning behind them. Statues of persons and animals are carried in front of the fire, which display silhouettes on the wall. The prisoners mistakenly view these shadows as reality. To the prisoners, as Socrates put it, “Truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things.”

Some have used Socrates’s allegory to illustrate the dawn of the digital age, raising questions about the influence of social media and algorithms on the modern distortion of truth. While Facebook replaced “The Wall” in 2011 with a more streamlined alternative, many consider the information feed on the platform to be deceptive and manipulative, much like the shadows on the cave wall. 

Members of Congress seem to feel that way. Several bills have been introduced during the 117th Congress targeting algorithms used by tech platforms. Legislation like the Algorithmic Accountability Act (S. 3572) and the Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act (S. 1896) would require companies to assess and disclose their algorithmic processes and impacts. One bill, however, goes further.

6. Filter Bubble Transparency Act

Social media platforms typically customize your content feed based on previous interactions and viewing history. For example, if your significant other changes his or her profile picture on Facebook, the post will often be displayed first on your newsfeed.

Congress has an issue with this, and the Filter Bubble Transparency Act (S. 2024) is the proposed solution. The bill was introduced in the Senate in June of 2021, sponsored by Sens. John Thune (R-SD) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). The House version (H.R. 5921) was introduced five months later by Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) with bipartisan support.

The Filter Bubble Transparency Act would force social media platforms to provide an option to view feeds and postings chronologically, as an alternative to the use of algorithms and personal data to display personalized content. The obligation would apply to platforms with more than 500 employees, at least $50 million in annual revenue, and more than 1 million users annually. The bill would exclude platforms that are “operated for the sole purpose of conducting research that is not made for profit either directly or indirectly.”

Lawmakers have depicted algorithms as nefarious and politically biased. As CEI’s Jessica Melugin points out, “politicians have blamed algorithms for everything from addictiveness, privacy violations, and political extremism to being a tool for censorship.”

Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit already provide options to view feeds chronologically. Instagram announced that it would bring back the chronological view option shortly after the introduction of the Filter Bubble Transparency Act in the House, showing that Congress can cyberbully, too.

Additionally, according to Klon Kitchen from the American Enterprise Institute, the legislation would more likely do the opposite of its intended effect. Kitchen points to an internal experiment conducted by Facebook in which the algorithmic newsfeed was disabled for .05 percent of users:

Its findings showed that engagement dropped precipitously, users hid 50 percent more posts (meaning they found these posts to be irrelevant or uninteresting), use of Facebook Groups—where some of the most extreme and concerning content resides—skyrocketed, and Facebook actually made more money on advertising because users had to scroll longer to find the content they were looking for, and therefore, were exposed to more ads.

Unlike Socrates’s allegory, consumers are free to leave the online cave. And consumers are more than capable of choosing the social media platform that comports to their liking. If a platform doesn’t provide the chronological view they want, users can take their business to one that does.

The Filter Bubble Transparency Act wants to make that choice on consumers’ behalf. Instead of allowing companies to compete, the bill would simply make all social media platforms more alike.