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Cyber dystopia

Book>> The Filter Bubble, What the Internet is Hiding From You • by Eli Pariser • Penguin Books • US $25

By Ananth Nayak
Published: Friday 15 July 2011

imageIn the spring of 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, cyber activist Eli Pariser asked two friends to google the term “BP”.

The results they got were quite different. One saw investment information about BP. The other saw news. For one, the first page of results contained links about the oil spill; for the other, there was nothing about it except for a promotional ad from BP.

  In The Filter Bubble, What the Internet is Hiding From You, Pariser argues that more and more Internet sites are tailoring their services to the inclinations of individual users. So queries for, say, restaurant, pizza, or even stem cells may yield different outcomes for different people. Google looks to your previous queries and refines its search results accordingly. Likewise, if you have hundreds of Facebook friends, you see updates only from the closest of them.

imageThis means search engines and social networking sites store information about your activities on the net. While Google has (so far) promised to keep your personal data to itself, other popular websites make no such guarantees. Pariser points out, “Behind the pages you visit, a massive new market for information about what you do online is growing.” Every “click signal” you create is a commodity which can be auctioned off within microseconds.

Pariser does not like search engines and websites to create pecking order of significance for us. “Do we even want Google, Facebook and Amazon to direct us to pages they ‘think’ we should visit?” he asks. But filtering does have a utility. If I am looking for a place to eat out in Bengaluru I’d prefer the search engine to take me to restaurants in that city. On Facebook, of my 700-odd friends I would want to know about the ones I care more.

Ananth Nayak is a software consultant based in Bengaluru

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