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Time to regulate ‘Wild West Web’, audit social media algorithms?

by Rex Patrick | May 21, 2024 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

Social media algorithms are designed to drive advertising revenue to the platforms, not to benefit users. The Government is failing to regulate for the benefit of the latter, Rex Patrick reports.

Last week, Parliament established a Joint Select Committee on Social Media and Australian Society. I’d normally congratulate our politicians for such an initiative, but there have already been a number of inquiries that have achieved very little to reign in internet-based mega-corporates raking in mega-profits.

There was the 2020 Senate inquiry into Foreign Interference through Social Media, the 2021 Senate inquiry into the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, the 2022 House inquiry on Social Media and Online Safety and the 2022 Senate inquiry into Social Media (Anti-Trolling) Bill 2022.

I could write a lengthy treatise on what was learned through these inquiries and one very short paragraph on what was done with what was learned.

But I’m going to limit the scope of this article to one of the terms of reference of the new inquiry: the term calling on the Committee to examine “the algorithms, recommender systems and corporate decision-making of digital platforms in influencing what Australians see, and the impacts of this on mental health.”

The Facebook whistleblower

Frances Haugen Time Cover

Frances Haugen (Time Magazine)

In 2021, Frances Haugen blew the whistle on Facebook. An employee working in the civic integrity area of the company, she disclosed tens of thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents to Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission, primarily concerned with the company’s misuse of its engagement-based ranking algorithms.

She revealed that these algorithms prioritise content based on its likelihood of provoking a reaction. She told Congress,

It is much easier to lead someone to hate than it is to inspire compassion and empathy.

To be clear, this article is not about free speech; that’s another article. It’s about how internet platforms rank and promote someone else’s free speech.

More engagement ultimately leads to more (advertising) profits. But controversial content can lead to harming of children, division, and hatred. Manipulation of content, sometimes entirely fake, can even distort elections.

Haugen pointed out that Facebook could be responsible and deal with this, but that would mean disruption to its astronomical profits. In the conflict between public good and money in their pocket, the conflict is always resolved in favour of money in their pocket.

Regulate or suffer

Facebook is not alone on the internet or in the world of social media. Google controls what it presents to you in response to a search … but also, and potentially more importantly, what it doesn’t present to you. Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, X, and a plethora of others all have the ability to draw in a customer and lead them down a profitable but sometimes destructive path.

These corporations have tremendous control and influence, with the potential to cause disastrous community outcomes. They are largely unregulated and largely consider themselves above Government.

Of course, regulation is a controversial idea. But there’s one uncontroversial principle – it’s better to have open and transparent regulation by a government responsible to the people than secret self-regulation by corporations accountable only to themselves and dividend-seeking shareholders.

Some control is necessary to ensure free speech is protected and that responsible platforms deliver safer, more enjoyable experiences to their users.

Algorithm audits

And that leads us to ‘algorithm audits’ being addressed by the Joint Committee.

In her testimony to the US Congress Haugen stated, “During my time at Facebook I came to realise the devastating truth. Almost no-one outside Facebook knows what happens inside of Facebook. The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the US Government, and from Governments around the world.”

On 24 February 2021, when the Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill was being debated in the Senate, I moved an amendment to the Bill requiring there be ‘algorithm auditing’ on search engines and social media platforms.

The amendment dealt with the opaque nature of the algorithms and business practices of big tech.

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Algorithm auditing is a new area of engineering. It involves independent subject matter experts reviewing algorithms to ensure they’re performing their purported functions, and are not improperly introducing intentional or totally unintended consequences into their automated processes.

The amendment gave the ACCC authority to audit the algorithms of these mega-corporations to ensure that they weren’t engaging in uncompetitive behaviour.

Post such an audit, the ACCC would report back to the government and the Parliament whether everything was in good order, or not. There would also be severe criminal penalties for officials revealing any trade secrets to address the concerns of the mega-corporations.

The ACCC’s ability to compel access and conduct an audit would alter the platform owners’ conduct.

Both the then Liberal Government and Labor opposition rejected the amendment outright. The Greens and the cross-bench supported it. The major parties either didn’t get it, were fearful of the power of the mega-corporations behind the platforms, or maybe saw how that power could benefit their causes.

The Reckoning

The time has come to regulate the Wild West Web. The question is, will the political duopoly have the sense and courage to regulate and enforce those regulations by audit?

When I moved my amendment to establish algorithm auditing, it had to be limited to anti-competitive behaviour due to Senate rules that prevent amendments from straying too far from the topic of the Bill they are intended to amend.

There’s an opportunity for the Committee to propose a broader legislative regime that would allow audits to look for many different sins; anti-competitive conduct, harmful content promotion, election interference, and fake news – conducted by, say, the eSafety Commission on behalf of the ACCC, the AEC, ACMA, and itself.

It’s a big call taking on the mega-corporations. But it needs to be done.

We’ve come to another ‘big tobacco’ moment. Will Parliament step up?

Fake news or no news? The folly of the News Media Bargaining Code

Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader - www.transparencywarrior.com.au.

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