Original art by Paweł Kuczyński

A Report from Ranking Digital Rights

By Nathalie Maréchal, Ellery Roberts Biddle, for Open Technology Institute

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This report, the first in a two-part series, articulates the connection between surveillance-based business models and the health of democracy. Drawing from Ranking Digital Rights’s extensive research on corporate policies and digital rights, we examine two overarching types of algorithms, give examples of how these technologies are used both to propagate and prohibit different forms of online speech (including targeted ads), and show how they can cause or catalyze social harm, particularly in the context of the 2020 U.S. election. We also highlight what we don’t know about these systems, and call on companies to be much more transparent about how they work.


Executive Summary


A Tale of Two Algorithms

Russian Interference, Radicalization, and Dishonest Ads: What Makes Them So Powerful?

Algorithmic Transparency: Peeking Into the Black Box

Who Gets Targeted—Or Excluded—By Ad Systems?

When Ad Targeting Meets the 2020 Election

Regulatory Challenges: A Free Speech Problem—and a Tech Problem

So What Should Companies Do?

Key Transparency Recommendations for Content Shaping and Moderation


Nathalie Maréchal is senior policy analyst at Ranking Digital Rights.

Ellery Roberts Biddle is a journalist and digital rights advocate