Luján Chairs Commerce Subcommittee on Communications Hearing on Disrupting Dangerous Algorithms
Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), the Chair of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, convened a hearing today titled “Disrupting Dangerous Algorithms: Addressing the Harms of Persuasive Technology” to consider legislative solutions that address the dangers of online platforms’ use of technology to manipulate user experiences.
“The pandemic has expedited our reliance on social media and the internet,” said Luján. “Americans are more connected to each other than ever before. Big Tech knows this – and while they may see an opportunity to shore up profits by manipulating our user experience, I see an opportunity to increase transparency by promoting equal access to factual information and economic opportunity online. Congress must create legislative guardrails to give users control over their personal information and hold corporations accountable for harm to our health and our democracy.”
Senator Luján’s panel of experts included Jessica J. González, Co-CEO of Free Press; Rose Jackson,director of the Democracy & Tech Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab; Dr. James Poulos, Executive Editor of The American Mind; and Dr. Dean Eckles, the Mitsubishi Career Development Professor and an Associate Professor of Marketing at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
An excerpt of Senator Luján’s opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, are available below:
As we’ve heard from testimony in previous hearings this year, algorithms, automation, and artificial intelligence have consequences for the health of our democracy and civil discourse, equal access to critical information, and the mental and physical health of our children.
This hearing will focus on solutions that Congress and regulators can take to address these harms and ensure these important innovations benefit all Americans.
Today, more of our lives are lived online than ever before. Over the pandemic, the number of Americans using telehealth services more than tripled. More of us rely on the internet for work and school. Online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat and Amazon connect us to news, economic opportunity, and our friends and family.
Online platforms helped Americans stay connected to friends and family and access basic services during the pandemic. However, this exchange has come with a cost. Founded on innovative and disruptive business models, these companies have come to rely on algorithms. Data scientists and engineers at these companies design these algorithms to predict the content that is most likely to provoke a response and in turn amplify that content to users. Rather than users choosing what they see online, these algorithms make the decision for them to maximize growth and revenue. Civic health and the wellbeing of consumers comes second.
If there was ever any doubt that business models and consumer interest were in conflict, Frances Haugen’s testimony put such notions to rest. Her work and the documents she uncovered showed repeated underinvestment from Facebook in Civic Integrity and in the health of minority communities at home and non-English speaking populations globally. She showed that Facebook had internal warnings that the platform was changing the global political conversation to be more extreme because of the content that it amplified. She showed that the algorithms favored emotions like anger and outrage due to deliberate decisions made at the highest levels of leadership.
We’re here to chart a course forward. The Internet was created in the United States. ARPANET, the First Amendment, Section 230, each of these contributed to U.S. leadership in tech and innovation. It’s time for the United States to step up again to protect these principles in the future while also accounting for the harms. We know there is a lot to do. But there is much that our constituents across the country agree on here.
First, we know Americans want more control over their data. These automated algorithms rely on user data to target consumers at the exact moment they are most likely to cause a change in behavior. Lax oversight of data brokers, opaque and complicated collection practices, and insufficient disclosure all contribute to the harms these persuasive algorithms have to our health and wellbeing.
Second, we need to know what’s going on within these companies. Ms. Haugen described the internal sentiment at Facebook that “if information is shared with the public, it will just be misunderstood”. That is frankly insulting to the American people. We need public transparency that allows for meaningful public oversight and discourse over the true impact these platforms have on our daily lives.
Third, we need to strengthen our existing institutions. The Federal Trade Commission and State Attorneys General seek to protect consumers against harmful practices. With adequate resources, they can step up to this role. That is why I introduced the FTC Technologists Act to improve the Commission’s ability to understand the dangers and protect consumers against harmful technologies. We must also strengthen local journalists and broadcasters to continue to act as checks to power and to live up to their role as trusted voices in the communities they serve.
And finally, we need accountability when tech platforms are negligent and actively cause harm. That is why I introduced the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act with the Support of Senator Whitehouse and Representatives Malinowski and Eshoo. Platforms should have consequences for actively amplifying content that deprives Americans of their civil rights or contributes to terrorist activity.
We may have a lot to do, but we’re also making progress. The Reconciliation Package before the Senate makes historic investments in privacy enforcement at the Federal Trade Commission. That bill greatly improves the FTC’s ability to go after bad actors by expanding its fining authority. And with a number of bipartisan bills to consider, Congress has the opportunity to make meaningful reforms.