The internet’s gatekeepers?
As long as there has been information, there have been gatekeepers who control it. This control might have meant keeping holy scripture in a language that nobody understood, suppressing news that might embarrass people in power, or restricting market information to ensure someone made a profit.
In today’s Networked Society, you no longer need to own a TV station or a newspaper in order to get your message out. Access to an internet connection means people can say what they want, on a blog, on Facebook, Twitter, news forums, or on their own websites.
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And being part of that network also means we can find the information we’re looking for. That’s why we have search engines, right? If I am interested in the fate of the lesser spotted woodpecker, I can find as much info as I want. Most search engines will even learn your preferences, for example returning local results from your hometown rather than from the other side of the planet. If you usually search for good nightclubs and party spots, a search for “Madrid” is likely to give you places for a great night out, rather than guides to architecture or what’s on at the Prada.
But Eli Pariser, author of a new book “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You,” has identified an intriguing and somewhat disturbing phenomenon. What the search engines no doubt see as a service in fact can result in an insidious form of censorship.
In an article for The New York Times last month, Pariser cites the example of searching for “Egypt”. Someone who has been regularly searching for news about the popular uprising and subsequent overthrow of the Mubarak regime would get one set of results; someone else who searched for holiday resorts, scuba diving and cruises on the Nile would get quite another.
The search engine results are not being manipulated manually, but by their sophisticated algorithms that determine “relevance”. Similar algorithms are making inroads into news sites, as well as search giants such as Google, Yahoo and Bing. Relevant results sound great. But censorship – even automatic, blind, unthinking censorship – is rarely a good thing. It can lead to a blinkered view of the world, one that never challenges our own preconceptions.
As Pariser puts it: “While it’s sometimes convenient to see only what you want to see, it’s critical at other times that you see things that you don’t.”
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