German chancellor, Angela Merkel has recently called on major internet platforms to reveal the secrets of their search engine algorithms, stating that their lack of transparency threatens debating culture.
Merkel claims that internet users have a right to be fully informed on how the information they receive via search engines is channeled to them.
During a media conference in Munich, Merkel said that she believes search engine algorithms must be made more transparent, so that people can inform themselves as interested citizens about questions like ‘what affects my behaviour online and that of others?’.
She went on to state that when search engine algorithms are not transparent, it can lead to a distortion of people’s perception – not to mention that it can shrink our expanse of information.
Search engine Algorithms are the formulas that are used by search engines in order to steer requests for information. Every search engine uses a different algorithm that is highly secret and determines the significance or the ranking of a page.
Merkel has joined number of critics who have shined a light on the dangers of receiving information that is recommended by people with similar ideas or confirms an existing opinion.
“This is a development that we have to pay careful attention to,” Merkel told the conference, adding that a strong democracy was reliant on people being challenged by opposing ideas. She also stated that big internet platforms have become an eye of a needle which diverse media needs to pass through in order to access their users.
There has been an increasing amount of concern regarding the so-called echo chambers and filter bubbles – the result of a web search in which an algorithm supposes the information a person is looking for, based on their previous searches, as well as information made available regarding their location or preferences – in the light of the increasing power of populist movements in the EU, the Brexit vote in the UK and of course the rise of Donald Trump in the US. In the month of October, President Obama’s former social media adviser Caleb Gardner, pointed out the danger of filter bubbles – a phrase that was invented by internet activist, Eli Pariser.
At Northwestern University, Gardner spoke to students, stating that while 44% of US adults get their news from Facebook, 61% of them are millennials. He told the students that if this does not frighten them then they clearly do not have enough knowledge of Facebook’s algorithm. If a student has a parent who is a Trump supporter, while the student is not, then the parent will be seeing a completely different set of news than the student. It is clear how this could be dangerous.
Merkel will definitely have an eye on 2017’s federal election in which it is expected that she will stand for a 4th term. The fear that the phenomenon of narrow debate that has been seen during the US presidential campaign might cross over to Germany is shared across Germany’s established parties.
The chancellor stated that the issue is a challenge that is not just for political parties but rather for society as a whole. If what mechanisms were being used, is in any way unclear, it could lead to a misrepresentation of how people perceive things.
Digital policy spokesperson of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, Thomas Jarzombek, told Spiegel Online that he did not think that she was advocating that companies like Google and Facebook should disclose company secrets, but the public does require more information from these operators regarding how their search engine algorithms function.
A cross-party working group is currently bust compiling recommendations that urges more openness by internet platforms, including publicizing details on how their search engine algorithms collect, select, evaluate and ultimately present information that is made available to users. Their recommendations will be sent to Brussels, for the European digital commissioner, Günther Oettinger to convert them into guidelines by 2017. Oettinger stated that Merkel has touched upon a very important topic. However, he also stated that any and all questions regarding search engines’ transparency first had to undergo a more in-depth examination.