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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has spent the year under increased political pressure. Photo: Jeff Roberson / AP

Lawmakers expressed concern and confusion about the role of big data and algorithms used by major web companies like Facebook and Google at a congressional hearing Wednesday.

The takeaway: Tech firms are under increasing pressure to account for their impact on society — including how information is targeted to individuals on their platforms — but policymakers have a steep learning curve when it comes to understanding the technology behind the popular services.

Quote of the day: "We don't, I don't think, as a committee really know how to get socks on the octopus, so to speak, here because it's complicated," said California Democrat Rep. Anna Eshoo. "Free speech is central to us. But we also know that there are bad actors that have used the best of what we have invented to divide us, and something needs to be done about that,"

The gritty details:

  • Concerns were bipartisan. "We know that there is in effect paid prioritization on some of these platforms, right, because you buy advertising, and it strikes me that at least Google it's an amazing American company — does incredible work — but has about 77 percent market share of search," said Rep. Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "And I've had consumers complain to me about what they believe to be the use of algorithms that have disproportionately affected them."
  • Net neutrality cast a shadow over the conversation. Republican lawmakers raised the difference in how neutrality is treated for internet providers — who are subject to regulations slated to be repealed next month at the FCC — and web platforms. Democrats said that plan to repeal the rules would hurt free speech online.

Go deeper

Retail stock traders power stunning comeback after deep selloff

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

Stocks staged a Patrick Mahomes-esque comeback Monday, after plunging for the first few hours of trading.

Why it matters: The remarkable recovery suggests that retail traders who upended markets over the last year — most notably during the GameStop bonanza that occurred almost exactly a year ago — continue to be powerful influence in the markets.

America can't quit polarizing politicians

Expand chart
Data: NewsWhip; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

New data finds that the nation's most polarizing politicians are often the ones that garner the most attention online.

Why it matters: Online engagement helps politicians build a bigger national profile and more fundraising power, incentivizing them be more outrageous, more polarizing and more divisive.

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
1 hour ago - Science

It's time to take reproduction in space seriously

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Before humans can settle off-Earth, scientists need to figure out how — or even whether — people can reproduce in space.

Why it matters: Powerful figures in the space industry like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have dreams of a future where millions of people live in space, which would naturally require a self-sustaining population of humans somewhere other than Earth.