Rupert Murdoch is aligning himself with some strange bedfellows – ivy tower academics and policy wonks – in calling for strong regulation of companies like Facebook and Google.
Murdoch is famous for his conservative views on regulation, but as the owner of Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications, he has frequently criticized social-media companies for not adequately compensating news publishers, even as the platforms benefit from their content.
Robert Thomson, the CEO of Murdoch’s company, News Corp., took a step beyond criticism last week in an investor call, when he advocated the creation of an “algorithm review board,” which would essentially regulate the secret formulas platforms use to determine, among other things, what news is shown to which people.
“I find myself surprisingly applauding them for calling for this kind of accountability,” said Mike Ananny, a professor of communication at the University of Southern California who wrote a book arguing that regulating these platforms and their algorithms is essential to a free press.
“It’s not something that you tend to think of, Rupert Murdoch calling for any form of regulation,” said Talia Stroud, a communications professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “That is interesting bedfellows.”
The idea of regulating algorithms is not new, but until now it has been confined mainly to academic circles. Thomson brought it out into the open, though, in the investor call.
“These algorithms are already potent, but they are destined to be much more formidable, and their abundant potential to skew news and skew our customers needs to be better understood and monitored,” the News Corp. CEO said. “And an algorithm review board, or ARB, would be particularly useful in the oversight of companies which have horizontal dominance and use that leverage to dominate a vertical, such as Amazon with audiobooks and potentially Facebook with dating.”
Thomson did not provide many details on how he would envision such a board working, including whether it would be government run. In an April filing to an Australian government commission, though, News Corp. raised the idea as well, saying that while current laws in the country “may be sufficient,” it’s also possible that “further legislative, regulatory and/or policy intervention or changes are required to address the negative impacts of the platforms on news and journalism such as establishing an Algorithm Review Board.” That, the filing said, would help remove platforms’ “incentives to distribute lower quality content.”
News Corp. declined comment for this story.
If public pressure grows great enough, Ananny said, it’s possible that companies like Facebook and Google could organize some sort of review body on their own, as a way to stave off government intervention. Ananny said he preferred a public model, though, as it’s difficult to imagine how outsiders could gain access to these companies’ secret formulas without the firms being compelled by government to grant it.
“When News Corp. or any news organization calls for accountability, we’ve got to push them even harder and say, make that public accountability, make it open and visible to what the public needs to know about how its news is produced,” he said.
Commentators on Fox News and Fox Business Network have frequently railed against regulation of any kind, including that of the Internet behemoths. But David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance, a political group representing nearly 2,000 news organizations, including News Corp., said companies like Google and Facebook are unlike anything that’s existed before.
“I think the new digital economy presents a lot of novel issues,” Chavern said. “There are novel commercial issues here that we just haven’t dealt with as a society before. It doesn’t surprise me that ideology kind of breaks down.”
Chavern himself previously served as a high-ranking official for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been ardently against regulation and government intervention. The News Media Alliance, he said, has taken the position that there needs to be more transparency and responsibility around algorithms, but does not have an official stance on an algorithm review board. Chavern was warm to the idea, though.
He also noted the feeling among conservatives – whether it’s true or not – that Facebook’s algorithms marginalize right-leaning content has made some on the right “who you might not normally think of as not having a bent toward regulation” more amenable.
“We all have to look at these things realistically and practically,” he said. “The fact of the matter is businesses just can’t own all the data and use that to own all the marketplaces without some kind of constraint.”
Told that it was surprising to hear a longtime Chamber of Commerce official talk about imposing constraints on business, Chavern conceded, “It’s been an evolution for me, too.”
Ananny, the USC professor, said the push for greater transparency for algorithms in news media is part of a larger movement that has sought more openness about how algorithms are used in all sectors of life. Algorithms are used to determine all sort of things, including how some public services are delivered, he said. But the issue is so complex and technical that most government regulators have not yet been able to embrace it, he added, leaving algorithm oversight mainly as a discussion topic among Ph.D.’s and wonks.
“News Corp. can give it a visibility and a novelty that I think is really valuable and really an opportunity at this point,” Ananny said. “What we’ve got to figure out how to do is take that novelty and push and really not ignore it.”
When it comes to media, a main goal of any effort, he said, should be “to go inside and better understand the algorithm and data that Facebook uses and Google uses to personalize people’s newsfeeds.”
He also said it would be important to give news organizations some understanding of how Facebook and Google’s algorithms work, so every time the platforms tweak them-as Facebook did earlier this year-it doesn’t lead to unexpected traffic crashes or surges, with outlets scrambling to play catch up.
Facebook has long protested that it’s a technology, not media company, though when CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress in April, he conceded, “I agree we are responsible for the content.” Still, opening up its algorithms – which determine how that content is displayed – to any sort of outside inspection would be a sea change for the notoriously opaque company.
Asked for comment, a Facebook spokesperson said, in part, “We’re working to be more transparent about how Facebook works and are open to exploring new ways to do that. We’ve recently taken several steps to give more insight into the policies and technologies that power Facebook.”
Google and Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.
Ananny cautioned, though, that imposing regulations would not be an easy process-the algorithms used by these companies are incredibly complex, especially as they’ve come to incorporate machine-learning.
“Even the people who make them don’t fully understand how they work,” he said. “These are really complicated, embedded, intertwined systems. They don’t just turn on a dime, these systems.”
Stroud, from the University of Texas, added that some key questions will have to be worked out. What exactly should regulators look for or measure? Who will the regulators be? Are the algorithms going to become public information, or will regulators alone be able to peer into them? And how, in the end, will regulators get access to all the data they need?
“It would be a massive undertaking,” she said.
Nicholas Diakopoulos, a Northwestern University communications professor who has studied the issue, added that there’s no clear consensus yet on how exactly to approach this type of regulation.
He supports requiring companies to disclose information on how their algorithms work, almost like the way food companies have to print nutrition labels on their boxes, and said some form of regulation is more likely to take hold first in Europe, which has been aggressive in cracking down on technology companies. For all the unanswered questions, though, he believes that greater regulation will likely come before too long.
“I think it’s going to happen in the next three to five years,” he said.
Diakopoulos said he was wary, though, of News Corp.’s motives. “I don’t think they’re motivated out of public interest. My gut is that they’re motivated out of corporate interest.”
Still, he said, the publicity doesn’t hurt.
“I think it is impactful for driving the conversation,” he said. “This conversation is starting to bubble over from academic circles to more mainstream circles.”
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