KLOBUCHAR: “Our laws haven't caught up to a major, major part of our economy.”
WASHINGTON – At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing titled “Disrupting Dangerous Algorithms: Addressing the Harms of Persuasive Technology,” U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) highlighted the need for updated laws to increase transparency and put an end to big tech’s self-preferencing of their own products and services.
Klobuchar emphasized that updating our policies will help promote competition and innovation and pushed back against claims that her legislation to stop big tech self-preferencing will hurt consumers, noting “It’s just that our laws haven't caught up to a major, major part of our economy. And my view has always been that competition is good for innovation. We’ve heard a lot of claims that somehow doing something is going to undermine the tech companies, but in fact, they are doing just fine and what we want to make sure is we continue to foster competition.”
In October, Klobuchar and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) introduced the bipartisan American Innovation and Choice Online Act to restore competition online by establishing commonsense rules of the road for dominant digital platforms to prevent them from abusing their market power to harm competition, online businesses, and consumers.
Klobuchar also highlighted a new bipartisan bill she announced with Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Rob Portman (R-OH) today to require social media companies to provide vetted, independent researchers and the public with access to certain platform data to increase transparency around social media companies’ activities.
Sen. Klobuchar: Thank you very much, and thank you for doing this hearing -- really important, Mr. Chair. Thank you to our witnesses.
Algorithms touch every aspect of our lives -- we know that, and it’s not typically very pretty. And what we know is that Americans are getting increasingly addicted to platforms, especially young people, taking up significant parts of their days. And part of that is because of how they are targeted. Yesterday, we had a hearing with the head of Instagram and I pressed him about the fact that the New York Times reported that his major increase in the marketing budget, $67 million in 2018 to $390 million this year, was focused on wooing teens, mostly allocated to that. And, as some of our colleagues have discussed, we need federal privacy legislation, but we also need more transparency on algorithms, and we need to do something about this.
Senator Coons and Portman and I introduced a bill today to require that the companies allow access to outside researchers. Some of this has been shut down, as you know, by Facebook, now Meta. But I think it's important for my colleagues to know that there is more going on here than meets the eye. Amazon is creating knock-off products made by small businesses and then using its algorithm to show its own version of the product they ripped off first, that has happened, Wall Street Journal reporting. Or number two, Apple is doing this, when you search for maps or music or podcasts, the first result is often an app that Apple makes. Even though they control the platform. And algorithms pervade our entire existence online.
One of the most shocking things that I think came out of the whistleblower documents was the fact that – which doesn’t surprise me, given my own experience online – maybe when I put something out there that Senator Thune and I worked on a bill together, it might not be as attractive to the algorithms of Facebook as some other forms of speech, no matter how interesting I try to make it sound. And then I find out that, in fact, the angry emoji gets five times the traction as a simple “like.” So if our constituents in Minnesota and South Dakota want to put a simple like, they may never see that post on Facebook, because it's the angry ones with the angry emojis that are going to start getting traction.
So, Ms. Jackson, in your testimony, you talked about how these companies design their algorithms to promote engagement, and it’s of course to boost advertising. I think we have to think about that, they want to get it out there, so people get addicted, so they get more advertising revenue. Can you tell us more about how companies design algorithms to increase the time users spend on their platform and how that affects users?
Ms. Jackson: Thank you, Senator. And I‘m looking forward to reading the bill in detail that you just mentioned introducing today, it’s an important step in ensuring that we do have more visibility into how these platforms operate in our ecosystem at large. I think, to your question, I want to call back real quick to something we were talking about in the context of these algorithms. I think over-indexing or emphasizing the ability of tech companies to know us and the kind of perfection, the idea of perfection of these algorithms, can cause harm as well. Because as you alluded to, we’re not just talking about algorithms on social media, we’re talking about algorithms used, whether it is to help Amazon promote its own products or, frankly, to help insurance companies make decisions about what your premiums should be, what your sentencing might be in a criminal justice context. Those are all very different contexts, but if we believe that those algorithms are in fact infallible, that they have the most accurate representation, we might be tempted to allow those algorithms to be integrated into our decision making, government decision making, determining the rights that we might have.
And I, you know, would call back to examples of, maybe I joined a member program at my local bar and it says I’ve been buying more drinks and I lost my Apple Watch, and so it says that I haven’t been exercising too much, and so my insurance company has decided that I’m a depressed alcoholic and I’m then denied for a loan. And that may sound fantastical, but right now there’s nothing that would make that illegal. And so, I think coming back to putting these in context. Algorithms themselves are not a magical solution in one direction or other, they’re not a magical harm. But it is important that we have accountability, that we have limits on data collection that power them, and awareness of the ways in which they’re used in our life.
Sen. Klobuchar: Okay, so one other piece of this, the other bill that I should also mention that has, kind of, I think one commentator called it the Ocean’s Eleven of co-sponsors, that I have with Senator Grassley and Graham and Warner and Booker, and including two [senators] on this committee, Senator Blumenthal and Senator Lummis, and what that bill is about is about getting after this exclusivity, the self-preferencing, the discriminatory behavior, that just no one that looks at it can really think it’s okay. It’s just that our laws haven't caught up to a major, major part of our economy. And my view has always been that competition is good for innovation. We’ve heard a lot of claims that somehow doing something is going to undermine the tech companies, but in fact, they are doing just fine and what we want to make sure is we continue to foster competition. Could you talk about how this innovation can ultimately, by monopolies and dominant platforms, get stunted? And do you share concerns along these lines? You started a start-up, right?
Ms. Jackson: Yeah, I don’t actually talk about that a lot. I founded a small tech company to try and help Americans become more civically engaged. And, you know, I was -- I didn’t really have a choice, honestly, in using Facebook and Google advertising tools. It's kind of, in the startup community, just, it is the only option. We kind of joke about it as the start-up tax, a large portion of your budget no matter what you do is going to go towards cloud providers of Amazon or Google and advertising in Facebook and Google, regardless of whether you want to try -
Senator Klobuchar: They’re each dominant in their own sector is what it is, yes.
Ms. Jackson: Absolutely.
Senator Klobuchar: Okay, and so?
Ms. Jackson: Sorry, yeah, I mean I think there are serious consequences for what that means for competition at home, but it also means that the ability to feed, it’s everyone has to feed into a system that is collecting more and more data, that is driving these incentives that we’re talking about. And so, no matter what angle we want to address these online harms, whether we are looking at competition issues or privacy issues or content issues and extremism, they’re all interconnected. Because it is a system that feeds itself. And so, again, applaud members of the committee focusing on privacy and transparency.
Senator Klobuchar: And would you agree that at some point, we have to stop talking -- have a little less talk and a lot more action?
Ms. Jackson: I’m a big fan of action, Senator.
Senator Klobuchar: Okay, thank you.
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