CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The founder of the open source Drupal content management system called for the creation of an Internet enforcement agency to monitor Google's algorithms to protect privacy and build web transparency.

"We need to know how the data is used but also how the algorithms work," Dries Buytaert told a crowd gathered here today at The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, which focuses on the study of cyberspace. "Do we need an FDA for data and algorithms? It would be good if someone would audit their algorithms to see if they're biased."

No Way, Dries

Buytaert added that he wasn't targeting only Google but other large tech companies as well.

Even so, the concept was met with some skepticism. Not everyone is comfortable giving the government access to the algorithms of Google or other leading tech companies.

  • One attendee compared it to the control tactics of communist nations
  • Another called for a more open consumer approach, where companies like Google would make voluntary disclosures about algorithms and operational practices
  • A third suggested a "United Nations" approach for ensuring transparency from the big web companies

But Buytaert, who also serves as co-founder and chief technology officer for Boston-based Acquia, stood by his conviction. He insisted that large web platforms that have biases should disclose them one way or another, to a regulatory agency or through other means.

"I'm not a policy person or, like many of you, an expert in law," he told the Harvard crowd. "But the problem exists." 

Later, he said he "was not convinced" an FDA type agency was the answer. Nor was he pushing for a "fair competition" mandate. However, he said he thinks it is important for the public to "understand the bias" of the algorithm practices of companies like Google.

"The parallels between regulating the software industry and the FDA might be closer than we think," Buytaert wrote earlier.

Google did not respond to requests for comment.

Big Reverse of the Web

Buytaert also said we're in a "transformational phase of the web" and "flipping the web on its head." Information is being surfaced to users versus them exploring the web and creating their own web experience.

Learning Opportunities

The right content at the right time is the "big trend we're all trying to go after," he said.

Buytaert wants the web to be more open because in a closed web environment, users lose creative freedoms because "algorithms decide what we see."

"It's getting worse," Buytaert said.  

Buytaert conceded that web now revolves around data-driven information, where mobile and contextual moments rule the day.

"Data," he said, is the new currency of technology."

Title image by Staff Reporter Dom Nicastro.

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