The filtered Internet

May 15, 2011 | By | 5 Replies More

It used to be that people were subject to the whims of old media, human gate-keepers who decided that type of information we should see. The Internet was supposed to change all of that, but we are now seeing startling examples that Facebook, Google, and Yahoo News among many other companies, are using algorithms to please us by giving us what they deem to be “relevant.”

Author Eli Pariser, executive director of, asked several friends to search the same term (“Egypt”) in Google, and they received dramatically different results. It turns out that there is no longer any standard version of Google. The new version uses dozens of bits of information about you to give you what it thinks you want. Facebook also employs such relevance algorithms to weed out information, and even “friends” that it has decided that you don’t want. In the case of Pariser, whose politics are progressive, Facebook edited out information from his conservative “friends.”

What would be the advantage to giving us what we want? Certainly, some of us want to live in a world where everyone appears to think the same. But such filtering would also have a commercial purpose—giving only “relevant” hits might facilitate Internet sales.

In this excellent ten-minute TED talk, Pariser tells that the Internet is increasingly geared to giving us what we want to see rather than what we need to see. In this talk, Pariser has challenged the new Internet gatekeepers to make this ubiquitous filtering of information transparent and to give user control over it. We will all be better off, he warns, when we get information that makes us uncomfortable, and information that is important, as well as information that challenges us, rather than simply giving us what they think we want.


Category: Censorship, ignorance, Internet

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    It reminds me of the peril sensitive sunglasses.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    What else aren't you seeing? Consider this article, which provides details, both from the U.S. and from other countries:

    "In their efforts to keep a lid on the growing populist fury that has arrived in response to rampant and growing financial and political tyranny in every sector of society, governments in the west are now mimicking Communist Chinese-style Internet censorship policies in a bid to neutralize protest movements, while hypocritically lecturing the rest of the world on maintaining web freedom."

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Beware the filtering power of the "like" button on Facebook, as described by Eli Pariser on Democracy Now:

    When you talk to people who run news websites, they’ll tell you stories about the war in Afghanistan don’t perform very well. They don’t get a lot of clicks. People don’t flock to them. And yet, this is arguably one of the most important issues facing the country," says Pariser. "But it will never make it through these filters. And especially on Facebook this is a problem, because the way that information is transmitted on Facebook is with the 'like' button. And the 'like' button, it has a very particular valence. It’s easy to click 'like' on 'I just ran a marathon' or 'I baked a really awesome cake.' It’s very hard to click 'like' on 'war in Afghanistan enters its 10th year.'"

  4. Erika Price says:

    Erich: Great point about the 'like' button. If you look at any news magazine's "most popular" or "most emailed" articles, you'll see fun, lighthearted pieces about culture, cooking, internet memes, manners, and other such simple fair. This is true of Slate, the NY Times, The Atlantic, Salon, and everything in between. The filtered internet is rapidly resembling the stuff of chain mail letters and local TV news broadcasts.

    Even more perilous is the fact that people "like" and "link" articles on facebook without even reading them. Half the time a friend posts a story on my wall or publishes it as a post, I will read and comment critically only to discover the friend never read the full story in the first place! It really makes me wonder why these stories are being shared at all. I suppose the simplest explanation is that people post and "like" articles for social reasons- to prompt contact with someone, to appear well-read and smart- and news magazines promote it because it garners them more hits and money.

  5. Sheogorath says:

    The problem with Google giving you only what it thinks you want is that you can easily miss out on relevant stuff that you need. That’s why, whenever I buy a new Android, I refuse permission for them to track my searches, staying signed out of my Google account if I have to.

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