Customized Search and Information Delivery=Censorship

I recently came across an interesting TED Talk about “filter bubbles” while doing research on critical literacy in a digital age.

In it, Eli Pariser reveals the extent to which the combined use of algorithms and consumer/user-mined demographic information is leading (perhaps inadvertently) to significant degrees of censorship by omission, as individuals receive search results reflective not of information most relevant to what they are looking for, but filtered by companies like Google according to information as seemingly irrelevant to a topical search–say, about coverage of the uprisings in Egypt for example–as the kind of purchases a person makes, the make and model of the computer they use, their geographic location, etc.

Essentially, Pariser’s research suggests that the quest to deliver customized, highly targeted information to individuals is currently resulting in unanticipated dangers with regard to the Internet’s claim to provide equal access to information for all. What Pariser advocates is that users be informed, and put back in control, of the kinds of filters search engines like Google are using such that individuals—not algorithms and databases—determine what details are deemed relevant and made available.

This subject is particularly important if/when we consider the fact that Google search has become a first line go-to source for information and everyday research.

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3 comments on “Customized Search and Information Delivery=Censorship

  1. This is indeed something that needs more light on it. Particularly as more and more of ourselves we put online via twitter, facebook, or other social/networking means. The more information we put online, the more advertising will custom tool itself for us. The product of that is particularly what this post is discussing. I had never thought of this custom-tooled advertising as being restrictive though. Really thought-provoking post. Thanks!

  2. Imagine the power these algorithmic gatekeepers have over us. Almost everything we know and believe comes through the media. Now, more than ever, the media is the internet. You can be sure that politicians, as well as businessmen have their eye on this type of tailoring of news to suit the consumer. If it can be done to present choices of movies that are the ones the individual is most likely to enjoy, it can also be used to present information that influences the perception of an issue or awareness of an issue. This is already powerfully done in other media. What if a politician or a CEO wants to influence voters registered as independents to vote a particular way, or African American voters, or twentysomethings? If they can identify their targets they can then filter results to bring up news stories that might strike a chord with them. Antiabortion people would get news stories that say the candidate opposes abortion and supporters of abortion would get the opposite.

    I imagine search engines already filter news going to people in countries whose governments overtly restrict information. Google makes its money by selling the spots at the top of the hit list. Why would they not do it for political as well as commercial reasons? Some search engines claim they do not record your identifying information like Startpage.com. There are options on some browsers to opt out of tracking and I have heard of software that will mask your identity. Perhaps things like that are the answer.

    There is another interesting TED talk about how the phone company and the government can track not only your location but all your conversations and connections, where they are and where you are, when they called, how often and so one. In Europe records are kept for at least a month by law so patterns and networks can be monitored not just individuals.

    • Thanks for your comments. I will check out the TED Talk you mentioned. Along similar lines, Time Magazine just ran a story on the extent to which mobile phone usage data has enabled unlawful search and seizures akin to domestic spying. The article, “The Phone Knows All,” highlights some of the reforms being considered.

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