Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, the most influential and affluent country in the European Union is putting pressure on Facebook and Google. Believe it or not, her latest public appeal has nothing to do with user data protection, the most common clashing point of Internet giants and government regulators. While speaking at the Medientage conference held in Munich earlier this week, Merkel asserted that Google and Facebook are so influential that they have started threatening public discourse. She explained that the algorithms used by these and other similar companies lead to automated censorship and consequently create personal bubbles for every individual who uses their services. To be more specific, the German Chancellor is referring to search and advertising algorithms which suggest and promote content they believe is of interest to users.
Customized content and highly targeted advertising isn’t anything new in the industry and has actually been a large focus of Internet companies in recent years. However, Merkel believes this extensive curating is hurting the diversity of opinions and news sources one can find online. However, her proposed solution isn’t to stop Facebook, Google, and other industry giants from employing these practices but to make them disclose how exactly are they using them. In other words, she wants Google and Facebook to reveal their secret search and advertising algorithms which curate content based on user preferences.
While Merkel’s train of thought can be understood easily enough, there’s realistically little chance of either Facebook or Google doing anything of the sort. After all, advertising is a huge revenue stream for both companies so disclosing their algorithms would basically mean they are revealing their trade secrets. Then again, Merkel is an experienced politician, so it’s likely she knows there’s no way of convincing Facebook and Google to disclose the specifics behind their platforms and is instead only trying to draw attention to the topic.
Interestingly enough, while speaking on the subject in Munich, the German Chancellor explicitly stated that the practices mentioned above are “distorting our perception” which is rather similar to the wording used by Bernie Sanders in his open letter against AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner. While the two cases obviously aren’t directly related, they do indicate a global trend of politicians taking increasingly more notice of tech giants’ practices which are influencing our exposure to information.