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Are You Living in a Bubble? How Google and Facebook Secretly Censor Your World

Isn’t the internet great? It puts you in the driving seat of what you can read, watch and listen to, right? Wrong. Our Technology Guru, Ben Good, exposes the shadowy way the web is becoming increasingly ‘personalised’. Whether you like it or not, your world is becoming increasingly small..

Project 50 - Day #7 (Underwater)To say someone is living in a bubble has many different meanings and connotations. It might prompt thoughts of someone ignoring reality or images of someone with Severe Combined Immune Deficiency syndrome forcing them to live in a germ free ‘bubble’ (as in the particularly bad Jake Gyllenhaal film Bubble Boy).

Take heed, because the concept of living in a bubble now has a new meaning. It has come to refer to the way in which websites are automatically ‘personalising’ our view of the internet and are secretly isolating us…

As the internet has evolved, we users have uploaded everincreasing numbers of photos, videos and personal details. Many of us are worried about what all this information might be used for, e.g. large corporations targeting us with advertising, governments intent on spying on us or scam artists wanting to steal our identity. These concerns are – to varying degrees – valid, but one way our information is being used right now is to alter our individual experience whilst surfing the web.

Goodbye Web 2.0 – enter Web Personalisation!

There is a simple way to test how much your internet experience is being personalised. All you need is a friend. Both of you need to google the exact same word or phrase (on your own computers) – you could try searching Technology Guru!

Try this and there is a very good chance you will both get different search results.

Google gathers all of its information about you to try and help personalise your searches. Your results are filtered depending on the internet browser you are using, the type of computer you are on and where you live. In total, there are apparently 57 different criteria that Google uses based on the data it has accumulated about you.

It might not be initially obvious how this personalisation could be a problem. Here’s one reason: you – the user – have no control and no knowledge of what filtering is actually taking place. You have no idea what information is being kept from you. Google is trying to make browsing more friendly and comfortable but, to butcher a Rolling Stones lyric, sometimes it’s important to see what you need, not what you want!

A good example of this automated filtering process was described by Eli Pariser, internet campaigner and author, in his latest book The Filter Bubble. Pariser asked two of his friends to do the Google search test as described above. He asked them both to search with the word Egypt. Here’s what happened:

Internet censorship experiment

One of his friends received a page containing lots of information about the democracy protests which were occurring at the time, whilst the other was served up with no information about the Arab Spring uprisings.

It is hard for anyone – regardless of political beliefs – to deny that Google was withholding important information from Daniel. However, Google aren’t the only ones engaging in such personalisation tactics. Facebook is another major culprit – specifically in its news feed. If you are a Facebook user, count how many ‘friends’ you have on Facebook. Now consider how many actually appear on your news feed. It quickly becomes very apparent that you are not being shown what all of your friends are doing – your news is being filtered.

Like Google, Facebook monitors your behaviour: who you interact with most with; the links you click on – and it then filters your screen so that you only see news from these people. Facebook has been lauded as a fantastic tool to stay in contact with new, old and distant friends (and rightly so). But it therefore seems somewhat unfair that ‘censorship’ of our friends is occurring. Although under the control of computer algorithms, no one likes to be told with whom they can and can’t be friends.

Filtering the internet
Thankfully, if you fiddle with your Facebook settings, there is an option for it to turn filtering off. When I selected this option, I immediately noticed how my newsfeed changed: It instantly became a richer source of social news. I even saw updates from friends who were now living in other countries who I hadn’t realised had left!

Don’t get me wrong, I am not an anti-internet technophobe; I have always believed that one of the main strengths of the internet is its ability to make life simpler. However, now is the time for a more important driving force – openness.

The internet’s creators could have patented the HTML code that governs it and they would have profited billions. However, they didn’t, they chose to share it. Since then the internet has allowed huge crowd-sourced projects like Wikipedia; made open-access science publishing model possible, and given publications like Guru a platform which would never have been possible in a pre-internet age. With such great results from this ethos of openness, I find it worrying that these unseen filters are potentially closing the internet and isolating us.

Take a moment to take a look around at what you read and view on the internet right now: is the whole picture being hidden from you? Is your internet experience being redacted? If so, then maybe it’s time to open yourself up to the whole of the information superhighway again. No one likes to live in a bubble, whether it’s one of ignorance, medical isolation or the screening of a bad film. So why not take a pin to the settings of your favourite websites and burst that bubble! You might just be surprised by what you find…

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Read this article in Issue Two

About The Author:


Ben is our former Technology Guru. He interested in understanding the way in which we as individuals interact with the latest technological developments. Currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication, Ben regularly blogs about topics ranging from GM crops to the science of getting drunk at the B Good Science Blog, and tweets at @bengood.

Discussion

4 Responses to “Are You Living in a Bubble? How Google and Facebook Secretly Censor Your World”

  1. You need to give your readers ways on how to get around googles filtering

    Posted by Breeze | April 19, 2012, 4:32 am
  2. I am sorry to criticize such a great publication, but this article really does not address the reasons why Google has switched to a personalised model, and how that benefits us, their users. There are pros and cons to this argument. In my opinion the pros far outweigh the cons and have not been addressed at all.

    The implication from the tone of this article is that Google has a reason for hiding the “best” search results from us, but exactly what are the best results has not been addressed.

    The problem with the internet is that there is a massive problem with signal Vs noise. Google and other search engines have been attempting to filter out the noise and provide better results to their users, but it is hard. Here is my example: Some people are uber-geeks play in the command line, compile their own software; some are stylish hipsters, follow the latest fashion trends, and so on. If both these people were to search for the term “Fedora” one would expect that the top result would be a linux distribution, the other a rather fetching hat.

    Google, used to have a problem. That all of these results for hats and linux distros were jumbled together in the top rankings for all of their users. By tailoring the top rankings to suit the personal nature of each individual Google now does an excellent job of providing the most likely information that the user requires. That is their job and we expect it of them.

    Let’s look at the example that Mr. Good gives of Scot & Daniel. Scott may have previously searched for protests or read news articles regarding similar topics which caused the difference in search results. However, I bet that Daniel did get results for protests too, they were just much further down the listing, probably on another page.
    Now, I remember back before 2009 (when google introduced personalised search) that I used to have to trawl through many pages of search results to find what I was looking for, this is not the case anymore. You see, search has become better because of the personalisation. Much better.

    Let’s consider this as a numbers game. Google needs us to use their service to create revenue. Most of their revenue still comes from search pages, and if they screw that up and no longer provide the best results then we leave and that will hurt them. It does not really matter if we are getting the same results as each other, so long as we are getting the best results that Google can give us. If we are not getting the best results, we all might collectively start looking around for another search engine just as we did when Google provided better results than Yahoo. Google does not want us to do this.

    I look forward to the next iteration of this search methodology, which may or not be already implemented. The idea is that world events such as uprisings (using Mr. Good’s example) are merged into all results regardless of personalisation. But I am still tentative about that. You see, news should really be relevant on news sites, not on search engines. A search engine is not a news site. I am in two minds over this. Either way, google is by far the most innovative of all search engines and I expect them to continue to improve far better than their competitors over the next 15 years.

    Finally, if you do not like the google service. Sign out of it, don’t use it. To use the word “censor” in an article about search personalization is in really poor taste. Fear, uncertainty and doubt, are tools used to unnecessarily scare users, and this is tabloid journalism. Again, I am sorry to be so critical, but this article is in not the balanced article I would expect from a science publication.

    For those wanting a truly unpersonalised search engine, try DuckDuckGo that does not collect any personal information whatsoever.
    For those wishing to clear their google history, have a look at this google.com/history
    For those wishing to know more about search technologies in general, have a look at searchengineland.com

    Posted by Oliver Lorton | July 18, 2012, 12:24 pm

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