Filter Bubbles: The Gated Communities of the Internet

This post arises out an article in today’s Guardian – Google: friend or foe to the open internet? – and a link posted to a video clip from one of the TED conferences. This talk is given by Eli Pariser, a political and internet activist.

I’ve written briefly about filter bubbles in DuckDuckGo: Dada and the Search Engine. Essentially, they are that rarefied space around your search engine that occurs when results are tailored to what it thinks you will like, determined by an algorithm. But Pariser goes into more detail, complete with Show ‘n Tell, in a way that brings the concept alive.

In my comments on the Guardian article, I said:

Walled gardens and filter bubbles are as perniciously divisive as gated communities. For that reason, I think a lot of people either don’t care or prefer the ideological seclusion.

Confirmation bias – the “tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses” – is a universal human attribute. It’s hard to fight, and we all have ideas that resist factual correction. Filter bubbles exacerbate the problem by pandering to our pre-conceived notions. That’s why I dumped Google Search in favour of DuckDuckGo, because it doesn’t filter searches or track them.

But many people like ideological exclusion zones, much as many people like gated communities, for much the same reason – fear of unfamiliar influences. I need all the help I can get in not shutting the door on unsettling ideas (as long as they’re rational), so filter bubbles are anathema.

Here’s the TED video.

DuckDuckGo: Dada and the Search Engine

With the upcoming changes in Google’s privacy policies, I’ve been digging around to see what they’re up to. From March 1, they will combine 60 separate privacy policies into one, amalgamating the data from all their products into a single marketing treasure trove. To Serve Man, apparently. I had posted a full YouTube episode, but the scumbags at CBS had it taken down.

Now I’m not suggesting that Google is controlled by space aliens who want to add us to their menu. Not quite. But Google does have an endless appetite for our user data, including marketing preferences and where we like to travel on the Internet. Which is very useful for targeting us with advertising crap. So if they have an integrated user profile, gleaned from every Google product you use, then the advertising crap just hit a much bigger fan.

While I like many of their products – Gmail, Google+, and Google are brilliant – there are some things up with which I will not put. So I use Adblock Plus for the advertising crap and Ghostery to block the Web’s creepy crawlies from tracking my movements.

Unfortunately, Google can still gather data about me. I can stop them from using it as advertising fodder by disabling Web History, but it’s still available for internal use, being anonymized after 18 months. They have another sneaky trick up their sleeves, though, and it’s not something Google likes to draw attention to. Did you know that they tell the website you’re going to where you’ve just come from? So do many other browsers. Google appararently stopped doing this for a while, until the outraged squawks of their advertisers prompted a U-turn.

It was only when I stumbled across DuckDuckGo that I discovered Google were doing this. DuckDuckGo (Wiki entry) doesn’t track users, and it doesn’t try to personalize the hits to what it thinks you might be looking for. I know some people like that, but to me it’s patronizing and an insult to my intelligence to think that I can’t handle challenging ideas.

So I’m using DuckDuckGo exclusively now. I love the name, which is pure Dada, and the uncorporate feel there is to this search engine. If it all goes pear-shaped, you will be first to know.