Facebook, Twitter, YouTube pressed by US lawmakers on algorithms

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WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – Executives from Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet’s YouTube are fielding questions from senators about how user content is shared and highlighted on their platforms as lawmakers weigh changes to liability protections for Internet giants.

Tuesday’s hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s panel on Privacy, Technology and the Law is focusing on algorithms – the lines of software code that determine how user-generated information is displayed and who gets to see it.

The panel is scrutinising how those formulas shape public discourse.

“I plan to use this hearing as an opportunity to learn about how these companies’ algorithms work, what steps may have been taken to reduce algorithmic amplification that is harmful and what can be done better,” said Delaware Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat and the subcommittee’s chair, as he opened the hearing.

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, the panel’s ranking Republican, said “algorithms, like almost any technologies that are new, have costs and benefits” in his opening remarks.

He said algorithms can be misused, “driving us into poisonous echo chambers.”

The hearing comes as Congress takes a broader look at how to overhaul Section 230, a provision of the 1996 communications law that protects Internet companies from liability for user content. One House proposal would make social media platforms responsible for the way content is shared and amplified through algorithms.

Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic chair of the full Judiciary Committee, urged social media companies to do more to remove harmful content, citing the Jan 6 attack on the US Capitol. He said domestic extremists organised and shared disinformation on some of the platforms represented at Tuesday’s hearing.

Witnesses include Monika Bickert, Facebook’s vice-president for content policy, Alexandra Veitch, YouTube’s director of government affairs and public policy for the Americas and emerging markets and Lauren Culbertson, Twitter’s head of US public policy.

Bickert emphasised Facebook’s tools to make the platform’s algorithm more transparent, so users can see why certain posts appear on their news feed. She said Facebook is working to improve the content each person sees, to make it more