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European Criticism of American Internet Platforms

Friday, November 4, 2016 8:27
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The Guardian reports on calls by German chancellor Angela Merkel for internet platforms to “divulge the secrets of their algorithms”:

Angela Merkel has called on major internet platforms to divulge the secrets of their algorithms, arguing that their lack of transparency endangers debating culture.

The German chancellor said internet users had a right to know how and on what basis the information they received via search engines was channelled to them.

Speaking to a media conference in Munich, Merkel said: “I’m of the opinion that algorithms must be made more transparent, so that one can inform oneself as an interested citizen about questions like ‘what influences my behaviour on the internet and that of others?’.

“Algorithms, when they are not transparent, can lead to a distortion of our perception, they can shrink our expanse of information.”

An algorithm is the formula used by a search engine to steer a request for information. They are different for every search engine, highly secret and determine the significance or ranking of a web page.

Merkel has joined a growing number of critics who have highlighted the dangers of receiving information that confirms an existing opinion or is recommended by people with similar ideas.

“This is a development that we need to pay careful attention to,” she told the conference, adding that a healthy democracy was dependent on people being confronted by opposing ideas.

“The big internet platforms, through their algorithms, have become an eye of a needle which diverse media must pass through [to access their users],” she said.

My sense is that some Europeans are frustrated at how American companies dominate many aspects of the Internet. However, instead of trying to compete with the American companies in the marketplace (which would be a welcome development, as more competition is good), they have decided that regulating these companies (e.g., through antitrust scrutiny) is their best strategy for reducing American dominance.

Here, the demand to divulge algorithms strikes me as very odd. Would Chancellor Merkel ask newspapers such as Der Spiegel to divulge the decision-making process for how they decide to present information to their readers? Of course not. That would be absurd. Similarly absurd is telling Google and Facebook to divulge their algorithms for presenting information.

Now, these companies might have their own incentives to be transparent about their decision-making, in response to market forces. But there’s no need for governments to get involved with any of this, and Chancellor Merkel’s efforts may be mostly based on anti-Americanism and frustration with losing in the competition for Internet dominance.

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