Monday, September 19, 2011

The Filter Bubble

I recently read Eli Pariser's new book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You. This was an informative read regarding privacy on the Internet and the types of information companies are actively collecting about your behavior online. Basically, major Internet companies, such as Google and Facebook, are looking very closely at your every click and diligently recording the info in an effort to personalize their site specifically to you. For example, when you do a Google search and start clicking away at the results, Google installs a cookie in your browser so that it may track what you're clicking on and what you're doing online. If you seemed more inclined to click on a right-leaning political website, for example, Google takes note and the next time you run a search the results displayed will include more right-leaning websites similar to the one you clicked on. If you have an account with them and are regularly logged in during your searches and activities, Google learns even more about you.

Pariser points out many problems with Internet companies using this practice and two in particular really stood out to me. First of all, you regularly have Internet companies looking over your shoulder as you browse, collecting (sometimes intimate) information about you. As a librarian, I find this assault on individual privacy alarming, particularly as a clear way to opt out of this level of data collection is not readily apparent to those that do not have an account with the Internet site or search engine they are using. When I discuss issues with Internet privacy with others I often hear back, "Oh well, if you're not doing anything illegal, what's to worry about?" Plenty, in my opinion. Information on how you behave, legally or otherwise, can always be manipulated or edited to reflect poorly on you. We see this everyday in the news. Though most of us are not newsworthy figures, I still feel that we are not immune from the manipulation of private information by various entities and/or individuals for their own professional or personal gain as most terms of agreement are vague on how the information they collect may be used. Further still, there are virtually no laws that pertain to Internet privacy, so, as of now, the information we give to Internet companies so freely could be used in a wide variety of ways that are potentially detrimental or inflammatory.

But, for me, this is not the worst of it. The reason the info is being collected on you in the first place is so Internet companies can improve and personalize their services. This sounds like a good thing, but, as mentioned above, Google is filtering your search results. Rather than a search engine that shows you a wide variety of websites from a wide variety of perspectives, you're seeing websites based on what you've already demonstrated to Google that you like through your previous clicks. With the rise in popularity of the Internet, many people, myself included, touted what a great tool it would be to bring democracy, change, and exposure to fresh perspectives to people around the world. Instead, the major Internet companies that are major players in the future development of the Internet are bringing you exactly what they believe you want to see. Eli Pariser argues that this allows for people to get caught in feedback loops that continually validate their own perspectives and sense of the world without any chance of exposure to something new or something in conflict with what you already believe.

This is a smartly argued book that raises some great questions on the future of the Internet. Will we allow major corporations to make the rules, or are we going to stand up for our own rights online and our vision of the Internet as tool for democracy? This is only one of many great books on the topic, so read up and speak out!

Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

The Googlization of Everything: (And Why We Should Worry)

The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains

Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality

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