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The FTC wants to put a ban on fake reviews

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

If you, too, are so very tired of not knowing which reviews to trust on the internet, we may eventually get some peace of mind. That’s because the Federal Trade Commission now wants to penalize companies for engaging in shady review practices. Under the terms of a new rule proposed by the FTC, businesses could face fines for buying fake reviews — to the tune of up to $50,000 for each time a customer sees one.

You know those one-line reviews on Amazon listings that don’t quite seem legitimate? Like the ones that rate a product five stars and say something incredibly vague, like “This is such a great item,” without expanding on any specifics? Well, that’s just one type of fake feedback that the FTC wants to crack down on.

The FTC’s proposed rule seeks to ban several different types of disingenuous reviews and would not just punish the companies that use them but also the brokers that falsify feedback. That includes the companies that buy or sell fake reviews, as well as those that buy or sell fake followers or views on social media.

Other notable carveouts include a ban on “insider” reviews and testimonials, which would prohibit a company from posting reviews from managers, employees, and even the relatives of workers without proper disclosure. It addresses “review hijacking” as well, a deceptive practice that involves repurposing reviews from other products, something the FTC took action against for the first time this year.

In April, the FTC fined The Bountiful Company, the business behind Nature’s Bounty supplements, $600,000 for allegedly exploiting Amazon’s product variation feature. This feature allows sellers to group different colors, sizes, or flavors of the same item into a single listing that shares the same reviews. However, the FTC claims The Bountiful Company used this feature to lump completely different products in the same listing, with the goal of boosting the reviews of a lower-rated item by grouping it with a higher-rated one.

The FTC also wants to crack down on company-controlled review websites that claim to “provide independent opinions about a category of products or services that includes its own products or services.” For example, that would bar companies from making their own websites — that they claim not to be associated with — to recommend their own products. The FTC’s rule would also fine companies that try to suppress negative reviews through intimidation or other means.

For years, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Yelp, and other online platforms have been attempting to combat fake reviews. But with generative AI becoming more widespread, it’s bound to get worse — and much harder to get under control. The FTC mentions this in its proposal, noting that “the widespread emergence of AI chatbots is likely to make it easier for bad actors to write fake reviews.”

We’re already starting to see AI-generated views populating the web. As my colleague James Vincent points out, you can see just how much AI-generated junk is out there by simply Googling “as an AI language model.” That’s the disclosure AI chatbots like ChatGPT spit out when asked for their opinion on certain things, but it can also appear inside spammy content and, sometimes, fake reviews the poster didn’t care to delete.

“Our proposed rule on fake reviews shows that we’re using all available means to attack deceptive advertising in the digital age,” said Samuel Levine, the FTC’s director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The rule would trigger civil penalties for violators and should help level the playing field for honest companies.”

If the rule goes into effect, it’s still not exactly clear how the FTC plans on tracking down and penalizing the companies that use or sell fake reviews. While the FTC has voted to approve the proposal, it’s now taking public comments that it will review as it moves forward with it. I’m just hoping it will at least discourage some of the low-effort fakes I’m seeing online — or maybe it’ll just inspire them to get better. Hey, if I’m going to read a fake review, at least make it good.

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FTC investigating OpenAI on ChatGPT data collection and publication of false information

OpenAI CEO Samuel Altman Testifies To Senate Committee On Rules For Artificial Intelligence
Photo by Win McNamee / Getty Images

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is investigating ChatGPT creator OpenAI over possible consumer harm through its data collection and the publication of false information.

First reported by The Washington Post, the FTC sent a 20-page letter to the company this week. The letter requests documents related to developing and training its large language models, as well as data security.

The FTC wants to get detailed information on how OpenAI vets information used in training for its models and how it prevents false claims from being shown to ChatGPT users. It also wants to learn more about how APIs connect to its systems and how data is protected when accessed by third parties.

The FTC declined to comment. OpenAI did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

This is the first major US investigation into OpenAI, which burst into the public consciousness over the past year with the release of ChatGPT. The popularity of ChatGPT and the large language models that power it kicked off an AI arms race prompting competitors like Google and Meta to release their own models.

The FTC has signaled increased regulatory oversight of AI before. In 2021, the agency warned companies against using biased algorithms. Industry watchdog Center for AI and Digital Policy also called on the FTC to stop OpenAI from launching new GPT models in March.

Large language models can put out factually inaccurate information. OpenAI warns ChatGPT users that it can occasionally generate incorrect facts, and Google’s chatbot Bard’s first public demo did not inspire confidence in its accuracy. And based on personal experience, both have spit out incredibly flattering, though completely invented, facts about myself. Other people have gotten in trouble for using ChatGPT. A lawyer was sanctioned for submitting fake cases created by ChatGPT, and a Georgia radio host sued the company for results that claimed he was accused of embezzlement.

US lawmakers showed great interest in AI, both in understanding the technology and possibly looking into enacting regulations around it. The Biden administration released a plan to provide a responsible framework for AI development, including a $140 million investment to launch research centers. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch also discussed chatbots’ potential legal liability earlier this year.

It is in this environment that AI leaders like OpenAI CEO Sam Altman have made the rounds in Washington. Altman lobbied Congress to create regulations around AI.

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OpenAI will use Associated Press news stories to train its models

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

OpenAI will train its AI models on The Associated Press’ news stories for the next two years, thanks to an agreement first reported by Axios. The deal between the two companies will give OpenAI access to some of the content in AP’s archive as far back as 1985.

As part of the agreement, AP will gain access to OpenAI’s “technology and product expertise,” although it’s not clear exactly what that entails. AP has long been exploring AI features and began generating reports about company earnings in 2014. It later leveraged the technology to automate stories about Minor League Baseball and college sports.

AP joins OpenAI’s growing list of partners. On Tuesday, the AI company announced a six-year deal with Shutterstock that will let OpenAI license images, videos, music, and metadata to train its text-to-image model, DALL-E. BuzzFeed also says it will use AI tools provided by OpenAI to “enhance” and “personalize” its content. OpenAI is also working with Microsoft on a number of AI-powered products as part of Microsoft’s partnership and “‘multibillion dollar investment” into the company.

“The AP continues to be an industry leader in the use of AI; their feedback — along with access to their high-quality, factual text archive — will help to improve the capabilities and usefulness of OpenAI’s systems,” Brad Lightcap, OpenAI’s chief operating officer, says in a statement.

Earlier this year, AP announced AI-powered projects that will publish Spanish-language news alerts and document public safety incidents in a Minnesota newspaper. The outlet also launched an AI search tool that’s supposed to make it easier for news partners to find photos and videos in its library based on “descriptive language.”

AP’s partnership with OpenAI seems like a natural next step, but there are still a lot of crucial details missing about how the outlet will use the technology. AP makes it clear it “does not use it in its news stories.”

Did you miss our previous article…

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Congress is trying to stop discriminatory algorithms again

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

US policymakers hope to require online platforms to disclose information about their algorithms and allow the government to intervene if these are found to discriminate based on criteria like race or gender.

Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA) reintroduced the Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act, which aims to ban the use of discriminatory or “harmful” automated decision-making. It would also establish safety standards, require platforms to provide a plain language explanation of algorithms used by websites, publish annual reports on content moderation practices, and create a governmental task force to investigate discriminatory algorithmic processes.

The bill applies to “online platforms” or any commercial, public-facing website or app that “provides a community forum for user-generated content.” This can include social media sites, content aggregation services, or media and file-sharing sites.

Markey and Matsui introduced a previous version of the bill in 2021. It moved to the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce but died in committee.

Data-based decision-making, including social media recommendation algorithms or machine learning systems, often lives in proverbial black boxes. This opacity sometimes exists because of intellectual property concerns or a system’s complexity.

But lawmakers and regulators worry this could obscure biased decision-making with a huge impact on people’s lives, well beyond the reach of the online platforms the bill covers. Insurance companies, including those working with Medicaid patients, already use algorithms to grant or deny patient coverage. Agencies such as the FTC signaled in 2021 that they may pursue legal action against biased algorithms.

Calls to make more transparent algorithms have grown over the years. After several scandals in 2018 — which included the Cambridge Analytica debacle — AI research group AI Now found governments and companies don’t have a way to punish organizations that produce discriminatory systems. In a rare move, Facebook and Instagram announced the formation of a group to study potential racial bias in its algorithms.

“Congress must hold Big Tech accountable for its black-box algorithms that perpetuate discrimination, inequality, and racism in our society – all to make a quick buck,” Markey said in a statement.

Most proposed regulations around AI and algorithms include a push to create more transparency. The European Union’s proposed AI Act, in its final stages of negotiation, also noted the importance of transparency and accountability.

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