While some first took it as alarming, many of us are now used to Facebook and Amazon providing us with targeted advertisements and product recommendations, based on interests we’ve indicated through web search queries. Now, Google and Yahoo! are doing the same things to our search results, according to an interview with MoveOn.org board president Eli Pariser. MoveOn.org states in its About page that it is a cluster of organizations that “work together to realize the progressive promise of our country. MoveOn is a service — a way for busy but concerned citizens to find their political voice in a system dominated by big money and big media.” One of the goals of Pariser, a renowned Internet activitst, is the passage of net neutrality legislation. He also wants to promote awareness of the problem created by customized search results, an issue he calls “the filter bubble.”
Pariser describes the filter bubble in his interview with news and entertainment site Salon: “Since Dec. 4, 2009, Google has been personalized for everyone. So when I had two friends this spring Google “BP,” one of them got a set of links that was about investment opportunities in BP. The other one got information about the oil spill. Presumably that was based on the kinds of searches that they had done in the past. If you have Google doing that, and you have Yahoo! doing that, and you have Facebook doing that, and you have all of the top sites on the Web customizing themselves to you, then your information environment starts to look very different from anyone else’s. And that’s what I’m calling the “filter bubble”: that personal ecosystem of information that’s been catered by these algorithms to who they think you are.”
Pariser explains that while these personalized search filters serve a purpose in helping us navigate through the vast amounts of information available online (an issue I delved into in one of last week’s posts), they’ll provide us with a plethora of information on the subject of search query, but nothing else. He says, “There’s a looping going on where if you have an interest, you’re going to learn a lot about that interest. But you’re not going to learn about the very next thing over. And you certainly won’t learn about the opposite view.” This results in a “feedback loop” creating an informationally-restricted environment: the filter bubble.
Pariser suggests a reasonable legal alternative to prevent this from becoming a locked-in part of social media SOP: that web sites become required to have users design their own privacy agreements. Rather than have users “read” pages of legal disclosures then agree to become a site member, Pariser suggests ” a standard format by which customers can have their own policy for how they want their data used.”
Implementing this, along with the success of net neutrality legislation, will prevent the Internet from becoming dominated by a few major media corporations, a disappointing trend of every telecommunication technology of the last century. This, Pariser claims, “is the project of the next couple of years.”
Pariser discusses the filter bubble at the 2010 Personal Democracy Forum: