Eli Pariser: The net's bubble burster

Eli Pariser thinks that personalisation of the web will give us a warped view of world events. Clint Witchalls asks him if Google's tailored searches are really so bad

Whether it's from your Wi-Fi connection, your web-search history or the kind of browser you're on, Google tailors its search results to your personal interests. In his new book The Filter Bubble: What The Internet is Hiding From You, Eli Pariser, a former MoveOn.org activist, argues that this kind of personalisation by web giants like Facebook, Google and Microsoft will have a hugely detrimental effect on the way we use the internet. But is that really the case?



Clint Witchalls: You say that the era of web personalisation began on 4 December 2009. Can you tell me what web personalisation is and why 4 December is a significant date?

Eli Pariser: That was the date that Google abandoned any notion of a standard or objective Google. On 4 December, they announced that even if you were logged out of Google services, you were going to get your own personalised search results. Two people Googling the same thing might get very different results. Because Google is a central tool for navigating the internet these days, it seems to me that that was the tipping point.



Why is it now time to be worried?

The technology that was used to target ads is now being used to target content. It's one thing being shown products you might be interested in, but when that's shaping what information you see, it has a much broader effect. My main concerns are that it gives individuals a distorted view of the world because they don't know this filtering is happening or on what basis it's happening, and therefore they don't know what they're not seeing. It's a problem, more broadly, for democracy because it's like auto-propaganda. It indoctrinates us with our own beliefs and makes it less likely that we'll run into opposing viewpoints or ideas.



You identify Google and Facebook as being the chief culprits. Are there other firms that use personalisation or have plans to do so?

Nearly every major company is racing to incorporate this into their software. Bing, Microsoft's search engine, just signed a deal integrating Facebook into its results, so now Bing results are personalised based on your Facebook data. Yahoo News shows different people different news. Even more venerable news institutions such as The New York Times are investing in start-ups that are taking this approach. In a way, it's hard to argue why anyone wouldn't – from an economic standpoint – embrace this technology because it produces more page views and more ad views.



Do you think that all websites, including the likes of Wikipedia, Twitter and the BBC, will embrace content personalisation, or is there a limit to what can be personalised?

It's true that if you carefully seek out sources that are not personalised, like Wikipedia, you can still do that [have content that isn't personalised] but the trend is very rapid. Since I wrote the book, Twitter started integrating a personalised recommendation service into what it does, so now when you search for tweets, you are not getting the top tweets, you are getting the recommended tweets for you.



Terabytes of data are added to the web each day. Without filters, how are we meant to make sense of that much data?

We need some help from the algorithms. It's just a question of how they work and whether they have our best interests at heart. I would argue that right now, Facebook is more interested with being compulsive than in being informative or interesting or useful. They're not very good at providing us with what we really need to know.



What do you hope to achieve by making people encounter opposing views?

It's hard to change people's opinions, but one of the things about encountering countervailing arguments is that it reminds us of the limits of our understanding. I think it's an important realization for us all to have from time to time, that we may not be right about everything or we may not understand these issues as well as we think we do.



Isn't it paternalistic to tell people "you should be reading about the war in Afghanistan not a piece about Justin Bieber", even if their click history shows that that's what they're interested in?

I think the paternalism argument is a canard because, in fact, these companies are already making judgment values about what information to show you. It's not as if it's neutral and I'm arguing it should not be neutral. Every time you're providing a ranked set of information in response to something like [Barack] Obama's birth certificate, you're making value judgments about what is valuable and true and useful. I think paternalism is inherent in any system that is controlling what you see and what you don't. It's impossible to do that without making decisions on your behalf. So then you get to: what does it mean if you give people what they want? Because we have a lot of conflicting wants. We want to eat junk food and we want to be healthy. The best media is very canny about balancing those things... personalised media often doesn't.



Another downside to personalisation that you talk about is advertising. But surely targeted ads – even though they are sometimes a bit wide of the mark – are better than non-targeted ads?

The targeting of ads is less of a concern for me than the targeting of information. But, in a way, it's a similar question. To what degree are we, the people who are providing the data that drives all these things, in control of the experience that results? The most pernicious cases of targeted ads, you have some 14-year-old girl who looks up "obese" at Dictionary.com and is suddenly hounded all over the internet: "Are you feeling fat? Do our crazy weight-loss programme." Obviously, no one would opt into that.



Isn't the solution quite simple: use an anonymous proxy, such as Tor, so that these companies can't trace your searches?

I don't think so. It's a partial solution but: (a) these companies are getting very good at targeting based on actual machine fingerprinting. And (b) why should we have to make an either/or choice between the benefits of using these tools and being able to have some measure of transparency and control? It's a bad trade-off. The technology certainly exists to find some middle ground where people do have some control. They do see when this is happening and how their information is collected and shared. And they can make their own decisions about exactly how to use it.



How do you envisage the "middle ground" working?

You could have at the top of Google, or Google News, a slider bar that goes from "results from people who are very much like you" to "results from people who are nothing like you". You could slide and adjust on a case-by-case basis. On Facebook, I think there's a big challenge in the fact that Facebook has a one-dimensional view of the world and the dimension is what people "like". Like has a very particular valence – it's a positive word. You can easily click "like" on "I ran a marathon" but it's hard to click like on "civil war breaks out in the Congo". So some types of information get propagated on Facebook and other types of information don't. Facebook could easily correct that. They could have an "important" button. They could mix in things that people like and things that people find important.



In your view, what's the worst-case scenario if the filter bubble continues unchallenged?

It would be the Brave New World scenario in which we are increasingly captured in these bubbles full of very entertaining, compulsive content and lose sight of the big, common problems we all face. Things like climate change, global poverty or Aids are going to come back to bite us because we're too busy watching cat videos recommended by Facebook.



Do you feel confident that people will listen to your message and put pressure on companies to be more open about how they personalise?

I haven't run into many people who weren't pretty shocked that Google search results were personalised and who, once they found that out, wanted a way out, a way of changing it or being in control of it. There's some history here. There was a first generation of these same kinds of technologies – the term at the time was intelligent agents – like the Microsoft paperclip. The thing was, they were totally horrible. They were computer programmes that just didn't understand who you were. They had a very poor ability to wrestle with the nuances of the world. So that flamed out pretty quickly. Now we have a lot of the same technologies, but it's hidden, it's not as obvious.



'The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You' by Eli Pariser is published by Viking tomorrow (£12.99). To order a copy for the special price of £11.69 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvReview: New 10-part series brims with characters and stories

Arts & Entertainment
Shaun Evans as Endeavour interviews a prisoner as he tries to get to the bottom of a police cover up
Review: Second series comes to close with startling tale of police corruption and child abuse
Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
football Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
VIDEO
News
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes looks on during his side's defeat to Everton
footballBaines and Mirallas score against United as Everton keep alive hopes of a top-four finish
Sport
Tour de France 2014Sir Rodney Walker on organising the UK stages of this year’s race
Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Brown Findlay as Mary Yellan in ‘Jamaica Inn’
TVJessica Brown Findlay on playing the spirited heroine of Jamaica Inn
News
YouTube clocks up more than a billion users a month
mediaEuropean rival Dailymotion certainly thinks so
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents
Arts & Entertainment
‘Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ’ (c943-57) by St Dunstan
books How British artists perfected the art of the self-portrait
News
People
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLE
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    C# .NET Developer (SQL, Algorithms, Data Algorithms, Artificial

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Develo...

    C# CTRM Commodities Developer (C#, MVC, SQL, ASP.NET, JavaScrip

    £45000 - £60000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: C# CTRM ...

    Development Manager (PHP, MySQL, Agile, SCRUM)

    £60000 - £70000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Developm...

    Lead Landscape Architect

    Competitive DOE: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green R...

    Day In a Page

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

    The man who could have been champion of the world

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
    Didn’t she do well?

    Didn’t she do well?

    Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
    Before they were famous

    Before they were famous

    Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

    Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players