Algorithmic Law

It happens to us everyday. Right under (or more accurately; in-front of) our noses. If you use the internet, chances are you have been subjected to an algorithm using your personal data, browsing history and online activity to select the content you see and drive your overall online experience. If you’re at a loss for what you can do about it, don’t worry; you’re not alone. 

When politicians and lawmakers get involved, it’s no longer a problem that we should ignore. The Filter Bubble Transparency Act being proposed in the United States of America (November 5 2021) aims to impose legal requirements on internet platforms to let users access a version of the platform’s online services, where content is not driven by “opaque algorithms” fueled by our personal data. Amplifying this is the fact that the bill lawmakers are introducing, is bipartisan. 

Despite the controversial impact that social media and in particular, Facebook, has had in recent US elections, it is a pleasant (if not slightly alarming) change of pace to see supporters on both sides of the political fence agree that more needs to be done to curtail the influence algorithms have on our lives. While we applaud and welcome the legal support of a cause that we’re fighting hard to change, the conditions of the bill, whilst putting big tech firmly in the firing line, leaves the door ajar for loopholes and workarounds to allow this practice to continue.

Figure 1: An extract from the Filter Bubble Transparency Act

The likelihood that the proposed act will stop these nefarious practises is (unfortunately) extremely low. Big tech companies of this size and revenue generation don’t get to where they are by not being able to side-step a few landmines. Establishing new (and smaller) companies and or partnering with existing companies, who meet the criteria in the Act’s “exclusions” section is a conceivable possibility.  

Laws and regulations, while intended to prevent and limit activities deemed not in the best interests of the greater public, can end up having a negative effect overall. If the public operates under the safety net that laws and regulations alone will prevent the inappropriate use of your online data, there may be a tendency to relax your own best practises and actions to limit the amount of data that is shared online with big tech. 

As is the case with any REAL change, the power sits firmly in the hands of you and the decisions you make. Laws can only take us so far.