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If Government Grabbed Big Tech Algorithms, It’d Be A Huge Property Rights Violation

Critics are calling for Congress to force the popular platforms to open their codebooks. This would be bad for those companies and for consumers.


Techlash is sweeping the government, as scores of conservatives allege that leading companies’ algorithms are stacked against them. Once mediums to vent outrage, internet companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter have now turned into the targets of the outrage.

While it is tempting to join the mob and call for audits of the way that companies filter, prioritize, and present media, doing so would make for a worse internet experience for consumers of all political stripes. Companies are only motivated to build the best infrastructure if they know that their work can’t be stolen or copied by competitors — or worse yet, have their IP micromanaged by the government. Conservatives who respect intellectual property must rally to keep tech algorithms away from the prying eyes of the federal government and corporate competitors. Defending IP means rejecting the mob calling for companies to relinquish their trade secrets.

Two years ago, University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci offered a powerful observation on oft-misunderstood tech “algorithms.” He noted, “We use these algorithms to explore questions that have no right answer to begin with, so we don’t even have a straightforward way to calibrate or correct them.” Billions of lines of code are “set loose” on the world, with unpredictable interactions with Google, Facebook, and Twitter users beyond the creators’ whims.

Organizations have run into trouble, though, when they try to suppress these algorithms and curate content to promote certain stories and bury others. This issue came to a head in 2016, amid reports from former employees that Facebook workers were working against their online systems to suppress content from the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Leading social media outlets didn’t do themselves any favors by installing over-the-top community standards, and banning far-right media personality Alex Jones from their websites. Many commentators have a point that banning a figure with outrageous, conspiratorial views is counterproductive and likely to backfire.

Nonetheless, critics have conflated recent oversteps with the underlying algorithms of leading outlets, and have called for Congress to force popular platforms to open their codebooks. This move would go far beyond political speech, since algorithms intertwine commercial advertising, campaign causes, and pretty much everything else under the sun.

For years, companies have been trying to figure out the best ways to connect users with the content they seem to like the most. This may seem unsettling, since companies can tell an awful lot about a person based on a few bits of search history and user traits. But in practice, this kind of customization makes it easier for buyers and sellers to interact, allowing for lower overall prices and less frustrated last-minute shoppers. This isn’t just about holiday shopping. According to a Demi & Cooper Advertising and DC Interactive Group study, 41 percent of decisions to go to a specific medical practice can be traced to social media.

But all of this matching and amplifying selected companies and trends comes at a gargantuan cost. Facebook and Twitter spend $7 billion and $500 million per year respectively on researching and developing their digital technologies. These companies will only have an incentive to keep investing in their services if they’re assured that their IP will be protected.

IP protection is constantly in jeopardy in the tech world, most recently with Blackberry co-opting Facebook’s method for determining whether devices that are instant messaging are voice call-compatible. The required opening up of tech giants’ algorithms would escalate the war on IP, making infringements on trade secrets all-too-easy for competitors.

There is also the option of simply handing proprietary information over to the federal government for inspection. This might be a step up from public disclosure, but the government’s woeful cyber security record would mean real risks for the billions of consumers that interact with social media code on a daily basis. In the dark web, the bounty for Twitter or Facebook’s coveted code would make for easy pickings. And let’s face it — government has never been on the cutting edge of technology and there is no reason to think that regulating social media will be any different.

Instead of jeopardizing the algorithms that the more than 2 billion global users rely on, disadvantaged voices should ensure that conscious cases of bias are kept to a minimum. This means calling out leadership in the companies responsible, and if need be, switching to friendlier sites until underlying issues are resolved. But nitpicking code in the public eye would spell disaster for consumers benefiting from tech giants’ ingenious intellectual property.

Ultimately, the biggest force of change for fixing real or perceived bias will be the user’s choosing. After all, Facebook saw its shares drop 20 percent when they failed to reassure consumers that their privacy was protected. Tech turmoil requires market discipline, not government meddling. So put down the pitchforks pointed at social media companies and allow the market to decide what works and what doesn’t work.