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Is there such a thing as a safe algorithm? Talk of Facebook regulation gathers momentum.

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Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University
Stock photo of the Facebook App on Wednesday Oct. 13, 2021.

Since Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, came forward with troubling information about the far-reaching harms caused by the company’s algorithms, talk of potential regulatory reforms has only intensified.

There is now wide agreement among experts and politicians that regulatory changes are needed to protect users, particularly young children and girls, who are vulnerable to mental health problems and body image issues that are tied to the social media platform’s algorithms. Several changes have been bandied about, from amendments to Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act—the law that governs liability among service providers, including the internet—to transparency mandates that would give external experts access to the inner workings of tech companies like Facebook.

But, given the expectation of free speech online, lawmakers will have to get creative. One potential solution is to create a new federal agency charged with regulating the social media companies, as was done with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, but it raises questions about how the political process, and the parties’ different ideas about privacy and free speech, would come to bear on such an effort, say several Northeastern experts.

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