Unlikely Political Alliance Emerges on Tech Transparency

Last week’s Twitter hearing revealed a growing convergence between the Left and Right, as forces in both seek to open up the tech platforms’ algorithms to public scrutiny.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday.
AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
Brendan Bordelon
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Brendan Bordelon
Sept. 10, 2018, 8 p.m.

Midway through a series of tough questions against Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey over the mistakes made by the platform’s content-monitoring algorithms, Democratic congressman and liberal stalwart Joe Kennedy III found himself egged on by an unlikely cheerleader.

Sitting in rapt attention a few feet from Kennedy’s seat on the dais was Matt Gaetz, the Republican congressman and prolific Trump defender who claims Twitter “shadow banned” him by secretly reducing the visibility of his account earlier this year. And as Kennedy drilled down on Dorsey’s efforts to address algorithmic bias, Gaetz could barely contain his enthusiasm.

“Great questions, Joe!” Gaetz said after the Democrat’s time expired. “Thanks,” Kennedy replied, nodding in appreciation from the dais.

Given the vast political and ideological gulf separating the two lawmakers, their brief moment of convergence suggests a burgeoning alliance between the parties over the need for tech companies to reveal what’s going on under the hood. Though historically a project of liberal tech advocates, conservatives angry over Silicon Valley’s perceived bias—and they include President Trump himself—are increasingly echoing their progressive colleagues’ calls for the platforms to open up their algorithms to public scrutiny.

“I was frustrated that after I was shadow banned, Twitter posted on their blog that it was a ‘consequence of behaviors’ that resulted in this action,” Gaetz said one day after last Wednesday’s hearing, which took place before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“That is very opaque,” Gaetz continued. “And I was grateful that Joe Kennedy was trying to ask questions about what behaviors impacted the algorithm in what ways.”

Though few Democrats or progressives agree that the tech platforms are biased against the right, many have long expressed concern over Silicon Valley’s inscrutable algorithms. These complex computational processes determine the content that users see and, in many cases, whether an account is in violation of a platform’s policies.

Keeping those processes a secret, some say, allows tech platforms and their clients to more easily manipulate consumers, promote racist policies, or shut down speech considered hostile to corporate interests.

“I don’t give a whole lot of credence to the idea that this was bias by Twitter against conservatives,” Kennedy said. “But I think the extent to which algorithms or people make these mistakes—and they’re going to—trying to be as full and transparent as possible is a pretty good remedy for that.”

It’s a sentiment shared at the higher levels of House leadership. “I’d like to know how many times I heard the word ‘transparency’" Wednesday, said Bob Latta, the Republican chairman of the House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection. The congressman said it’s important that Twitter and the other major platforms “make sure that they are transparent to the public, and also, when these algorithms are being written, that they don’t favor one side or the other.”

Latta even threatened legislation if the tech platforms won’t come along willingly. “That’s what we do,” he said. “We have the oversight hearing, we had those individuals in, and we’ll see.”

The budding alliance between Right and Left on algorithmic transparency bodes poorly for the tech platforms, who’ve long argued that exposing the inner workings of their proprietary algorithms would cripple their ability to compete, do little to solve the problem of bias and could even expose consumer data to prying eyes.

“If you think you can look at the algorithm and suddenly divine what is the proper, fair way to do this, I think that’s showing a lack of understanding,” said Milton Mueller, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Public Policy. “It’s just opening the door to, I think, a nightmare of meddling in the process of managing one of these platforms.”

Google, Facebook, and Twitter are used to fending off such challenges from the Left. “We called for algorithmic transparency many years ago,” said Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil liberties group. “I explained in testimony before Senate Judiciary in 2011 that after Google acquired YouTube it moved from objective ranking metrics to subjective proprietary techniques. We strongly opposed that and it had a direct impact on the search rankings of EPIC’s web pages, which fell relative to Google’s.”

But the platforms have less experience facing off against Republicans on the same question. That they’re being forced to do so now is almost certainly a function of the GOP’s shifting ideological identity. Zach Graves, a fellow at right-leaning tech group R Street and head of policy at the libertarian Lincoln Network, believes that conservative populism and grievance politics is pushing Republicans away from their traditional support for intellectual-property rights.

“I think it’s going to push the Right toward sort of taking things out of the policy playbook from the Left in terms of algorithms, algorithmic transparency, algorithmic bias,” Graves said. “These have been long-standing things the Left has cared about. I just don’t think the Right has bothered really to do their homework yet—to dust these things off and put them to use by the right-wing populists.”

Republicans concerned about tech’s alleged anti-conservative bent admit that they’re playing catch-up to some of their liberal counterparts. “I am new to this cause—not by choice, but by the fact that I was a victim,” Gaetz said.

Along with Kennedy, Gaetz named House Judiciary Committee members David Cicilline, Jerry Nadler, and Jamie Raskin as Democrats who are “receptive” to his efforts.

Mismatched priorities in the fight for greater transparency is unlikely to be a roadblock for cooperation between the parties. Though Democrats fret about the societal impact of opaque algorithms and Republicans seethe over perceived political bias, few believe that those divergent worldviews will keep either side from working together against the tech platforms.

“That’s actually how this place is supposed to work, right?” Kennedy said. “Democrats would work with Republicans—I can look at an issue one way, you look at it another. You find the solution that works for both? Great.”

Any effort to require the platforms to open up their algorithms would be beset by legal and First Amendment challenges. And while Gaetz and other lawmakers are floating a repeal of Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act—a provision that grants platforms liability protections for content posted by their users—some experts say it’s not clear how that repeal would compel algorithmic transparency.

“That just shows they are not thinking very clearly or deeply,” Mueller said. “Repealing, changing, or fiddling with Section 230 doesn’t produce transparency of algorithms in any way I can see.”

Still, Graves believes that it’s only a matter of time—perhaps a couple of years—before the merging of Left and Right on the issue produces a real congressional push forcing Silicon Valley to open up.

“It’s hard to say exactly what mechanism they’ll choose,” Graves said. “But I think that the Left is also really interested in this suggests that there may be some kind of horrible convergence between the two to put those sort of policies in place.”

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