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In the late 19th century, chemist Harvey W. Wiley analyzed the health effects of processed foods, alerting the nation to how contaminated they were. His 50-year campaign led to the Food and Drugs Act, the Meat Inspection Act, and, eventually, our modern standards of food safety. But a reformer akin to Wiley would be stymied by the technology sector today. Many observers agree that it’s long past time to implement more regulation and oversight on the tech sector. Yet the practices of these companies are obscured to reporters, researchers and regulators. This information asymmetry between the technology companies and the public is among the biggest issues in technology policy.
Users themselves often have little window into the choices that tech companies make for them. Increasingly more of the web is bespoke: Your feeds, search results, followers, and friends are yours and yours alone. This is true offline, too, as algorithmic tools screen job applicants and provide personalized medical treatments. While there are advantages to these digital services, this personalization comes at a cost to transparency. Companies collect enormous volumes of data and feed them through computer programs to shape each user’s experience. These algorithms are hidden from view, …
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