Here’s an unsettling exercise: Imagine if the food manufacturing industry could abandon all transparency. In this world, the Food and Drug Administration wouldn’t exist to monitor and label food. Essential regulation such as the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Food Safety Modernization Act would be absent. And the work of crusaders such as Alice Lakey and Upton Sinclair would have fallen on disinterested ears.
Without mandated transparency and the interventions it enables, consumers would shoulder grave consequences: filthy factories, routine food poisoning, never-ending listeria outbreaks, and worse.
Thankfully, this is as absurd as it is frightening: Food manufacturing transparency isn’t voluntary, it’s required in the public interest. But the exercise is useful when considering the transparency—or lack of it—in other industries. Industries such as consumer technology.
Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms can have as great an influence on us as the food we eat. We use these platforms for hours each day, and the information they curate shapes how we live in the world: whether we wear a mask, how we cast our vote, whether we trust current or future vaccine safety. But there’s no mandated transparency into how these influential platforms work. Regulators and essential watchdogs such as civil society researchers and journalists have little insight into why one YouTube video is recommended over another, or which demographics a Facebook ad campaign is targeting.