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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Transparent algorithms needed to stem online misinformation

I am currently reading Hannah Fry's book, 'Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine' about the way that our lives are increasingly being dictated (and improved) by algorithms. I recommend it, the book is truly eye-opening. But as with all these advances, there is a downside as well, and the only way to combat that is through complete transparency.

The Independent reports on one aspect of our lives where full transparency is crucial of we are to avoid the sort of manipulation and misinformation that has been the dominant feature of recent referendums and elections.

They say that a report from the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee, has concluded that an online ‘pandemic of misinformation’ is posing an existential threat to the UK’s democracy and way of life.

The report has accused government ministers of failing to get to grips with the urgency of the challenges of the digital age. And it called for immediate action to rein in tech giants, including new powers for proposed online harms regulator Ofcom to fine digital companies up to 4 per cent of their global turnover or force ISP blocking of serial offenders.

In particular, the committee want Ofcom to be given the power to hold digital platforms legally responsible for content they recommend to large audiences or that is produced by users with a large following. And it said online platforms should be required to be transparent in how their algorithms work so they are not operating in ways that discriminate against minorities:

Its report said that online platforms are not “inherently ungovernable” but warned power has been ceded to a “few unelected and unaccountable digital corporations” including Facebook and Google, and politicians must act now to hold them to account when they are shown to negatively influence public debate and undermine democracy.

The report also called for political advertising to be brought into line with other advertising in the requirement for truth and accuracy.

And it said that the political parties should work with the Advertising Standards Authority and other regulators to develop a code of practice that would ban “fundamentally inaccurate” advertising during elections and referendums.

Committee chair Lord Puttnam said: “We are living through a time in which trust is collapsing. People no longer have faith that they can rely on the information they receive or believe what they are told. That is absolutely corrosive for democracy.

The key to all this of course is understanding how the algorithms used by these companies work. Until Ofcom can see why certain material and adverts are being targeted at particular groups of individuals then they will find it nearly impossible to properly regulate these companies.

Full transparency must be a condition of digital platforms operating in the UK.
If only we belonged to a group of nations with the proven power to compel the tech. giants to change their ways. ;-)

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