When you look at things on personalized Internet search engines, your own social media, your cell phone, and GPS navigation tool, they’re looking back at you, recording electronically all kinds of personal information about your likes, political beliefs, friends, phone contacts, where you are, and where you go, a new book says.
Mathematical formulas (algorithms) turn that personal information into an electronic profile of your likes, dislikes, habits, and beliefs, and those of your friends. They turn the information into money by creating a profile of you, and sending ads your way for things you might want to buy, and political candidates and causes you might support.
They also hide information from you, according to what your electronic profile tells them you don’t want to see.
These tools are all personalized now, mostly without the user’s knowledge or consent, liberal political activist Eli Pariser, head of MoveOn.org, says in his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You. He presents the personalized Internet as involuntary manipulation and censorship by giant corporations, and potential political repression by dictatorships.
Personalized Internet is Not All Bad, Reviewer Says
Personalized Internet is not all bad, a reviewer said in The NY Times. Pariser’s book, though valuable, is one-sided, incomplete, and anecdotal, Yevgeny Morizov said in his review. He does not mention legal and technological limits on the threats he sees.
An unfiltered Internet would give an overwhelming number of results, without priority, that would be practically useless, Morizov says. The information you really need could be buried on Page 99 of a list of references your search terms generate.
You can turn off the personalized Internet filters on Google and Facebook if you really want chaotic, untiltered search results, Morizov says.
Google Started Its Personalized Internet in a Whisper
On Dec. 4, 2009, on Google’s corporate website, sandwiched between updates about top search terms and new Google Finance tools, was an innocuous story headlined: “Personalized Internet Search for Everyone.” Few people noticed, but Google watchdog Danny Sullivan did, and wrote that it was “the biggest change that has ever happened in search engines.”
That morning, Pariser says, Google began using 57 “signals” – where you were, what browser you were using, what you had searched in the past, etc. – to guess what content you wanted to see. Since then, he says, people can Google the same words and get completely different results, based on Google’s electronic profile of who they are.
He tells of two similar women – both educated, left-leaning Northeasterners – who Googled BP when its oil well was spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. One got news about the spill; the other got information about buying stock in the company, and a promotional ad for BP, with no mention of the oil spill. One got 139 million results; the other, 180 million.
“If the results were that different for these two similar women, imagine how different they would be for my [young liberal] friends, and an older Republican in Texas, or for that matter, a businessman in Japan,” Pariser says.
Is “Big Brother” Watching Us?
In his novel 1984, George Orwell painted a terrifying picture of a brutal dictatorship, where an oppressive government , led by “Big Brother,” uses television to watch the citizens who were watching it.
“Telescreens” were everywhere, including private homes, public places, and bathrooms, and were on all the time. Viewers had no “off” switch. Big Brother’s government used what it saw on the “telescreen” to punish severely any individual who had just the beginning of a subversive thought, before it matured into a philosophy, behavior, or organized dissent.
To Pariser, Orwell missed by only a couple of decades, and the technology is being used – so far at least – mostly to maximize corporate profits, not to keep a brutal dictatorship in power.
Personalized Internet Thwarts Potential Terrorists
Our government today does not deny that it uses information from personalized cell phones, search engines, social media, and GPS navigators to track and disrupt potential terrorists. It takes no imagination and very little memory to recognize the potential for abuse there.
The smarter their cell phones are, the more the phone knows about them: where they are, where they go, and everyone they talk to. It never forgets. It’s like carrying a government spy in your pocket, if the government wants to use it that way, Pariser says.
Government has virtually unlimited ability to define “potential terrorist,” and decide who “potential terrorists” are. Who they monitor, and why, is Top Secret. The targets of the investigation don’t know they’re being watched, and there is virtually no appealing the government’s decision, even if you find out about it.
Morizov says Pariser fails to mention important legal restrictions and protections against government spying.
In the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, the FBI used primitive information gathering techniques (following people, undercover agents infiltrating meetings, hidden microphones, and tapping telephones) to spy on the anti-Vietnam and civil rights movements, AND ME.
But we knew the government was watching us, and infiltrating our meetings.
Why Today’s Personalized Internet Is Different from the ‘60’s
Today’s “potential terrorists” don’t know the government is watching them electronically, far more closely than was possible in the ‘60’s. The really dangerous terrorist threats take precautions. People who think they’re doing nothing wrong, that would interest the government, often don’t know they’re being watched, until they get detained trying to board an airplane.
Though we’ve always selected our own material, and filtered out what we’re not interested in, Pariser sees three differences between today’s personalized Internet filtering and the old days before December 2009, when Google began filtering everybody’s content:
- We’re alone in our personalized Internet bubbles, not part of a group with similar interests. Shared information is the bedrock of shared experience, and the personalized Internet pulls people apart.
- The personalized Internet is an invisible filter. You don’t know how it decides who you are, and what content you want to see. You don’t choose those criteria. You might not even know your information is filtered. When you read biased news media, like conservative Fox News or the liberal Nation magazine, you know you’re seeing a biased view of reality, know what the bias is, and choose which filter you want.
- You don’t choose to be filtered by a personalized Internet, like you do when you pick up the Nation or turn on Fox News. Your filters are chosen for you because it drives up profits for the web sites that use it. They will become harder and harder to avoid.
It would be one thing if the personalized Internet were just about targeting advertising, Pariser says. But personalized news feeds, like Facebook, are becoming the primary source of news for more and more people, especially people under 30. The personalized Internet is shaping the flow of information far beyond Facebook, Pariser says. It threatens national unity and democracy, and “the genie is probably already out of the bottle.”