Commentary

How Will Outlawing Filter Bubbles Affect Publishers?

Senate lawmakers recently proposed a bill to force search engines like Google to be more open about how they rank internet searches, and to let consumers see unfiltered search results.

The idea behind the Filter Bubble Transparency Act is to liberate internet users from a vicious cycle of seeing more of the same content, based on what they viewed before. Filter bubbles are a direct byproduct of the personalization efforts of companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter.

The worry is that filter bubbles lead to deeper political divisions when social networks and search engines show liberals and conservatives different news and information about hot-button topics, such as immigration, gun control or abortion.

The law would require companies that collect data from more than 1 million users and have revenue of at least $50 million to disclose how their software determine what information they show online -- and to let consumers opt out of filtered content. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on the internet, is part of a bipartisan group that introduced the bill on Oct. 31.  

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While the bill has serious flaws and may never be signed into law, it does invite more discussion about how social media and search engines control news and information.

Publishers depend on these platforms for a substantial amount of web traffic. A law requiring greater transparency from search engines and social media may help to understand how audiences discover publishers' digital content.

Search engine optimization (SEO) and social-media management have become specialized professions among publishers, although I'm suspicious of how much insight anyone really has into Google and Facebook's "secret" algorithms. In my experience as an editor and website manager, I've been given countless instructions on how to improve the "discoverability" of digital news on search engines. Ultimately, exclusive news and gripping headlines are the best optimization strategy.

That said, I’m in favor of greater transparency that would help consumers and publishers to understand how Facebook, Google and Twitter control what billions of people see online.

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