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June 26, 2011 7:43 pm

A dystopian view of online freedoms

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The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You , by Eli Pariser, Penguin, RRP£12.99, $25.95

For at least a decade people have been predicting that the internet, as it matured, would become a more personalised experience for its users. MIT technology expert Nicholas Negroponte saw people sampling television and news­papers, rigging up a “Daily Me” to fit their curiosity. The Chicago professor (and later White House regulator) Cass Sunstein was more pessimistic. He worried that a tailor-made web experience would isolate citizens, turning the internet into a tawdry, ideological, anti-intellectual place. People would figure out what they liked and gorge themselves on it.

But for better or for worse, it was assumed, this personalisation would be carried out by the free users of an open, democratic internet. The Filter Bubble, by the internet political activist Eli Pariser, is the story of how that didn’t happen.

It is “the filtering goliaths”, as Pariser calls them – Google, YouTube, Amazon, Facebook and others – who set the rules of personalisation. You may think you are using their search engines but they are actually using you. Your surfing habits and mouse-clicks reveal what news you want to see, what products you want to buy and what kind of arguments will close any sale. Advertisers are getting better and better at using this information to entice and exploit. “Personalised filters play to the most compulsive parts of you,” Pariser writes. The internet is not personalised the way a bespoke suit is personalised – to better fit your particular tastes. It is personalised the way a blackmail note is personalised – to better fit your particular vulnerabilities.

This danger was well understood by the pioneers of search. When Larry Page and Sergey Brin were developing Google, they hoped such companies would stay in the non-profit sector. “We expect that advertising-funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers,” they wrote, “and away from the needs of consumers.” They were right, but they were unable to resist the lure of advertising-driven search themselves, so that is the world we have.

The internet we were promised bears little relation to the one we got. We once thought that anonymity would allow users to experiment and explore. But since identifying peoples’ predilections is so profitable, companies are now hard at work “de-anonymising” the web. Newspapers and other media, as Pariser sees it, must reinvent themselves as “behavioural data companies”. On the one hand, this might make us safer – an internet data-tracking and marketing company called Acxiom turned up more information on 11 of the 19 September 11 hijackers than the entire US government was able to. But Pariser fears that “the new, personalised Web may no longer be as well-suited for creative discovery as it once was”.

A second problem is asymmetry of information. The search goliaths know more about their customers than their customers know about them, especially in the US. There, the law does not require data-sifting companies to tell customers what data has been gathered on them. “It’s an entirely reasonable expectation,” Pariser writes, “that data that users provide to companies ought to be available to us.” Right on.

Pariser is a rambling writer. He tends to answer questions by flinging anecdotes at them. His book lacks an overarching argument. What it has, though, is a solid moral compass and an appealing dystopian bent. Pariser is an excellent debunker of internet clichés. Bill Clinton was wrong, he shows, to claim that China’s efforts to crack down on the internet were “sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall”. Governments can control the web much more easily than we think. The much-vaunted “cloud” consists of only a handful of companies, which is what made it such a simple matter to take WikiLeaks offline in 2010. More disturbing, privacy laws have not caught up with technology, and most people’s e-mails pass through unprotected constitutional space – the servers of, say, Yahoo, Gmail and Hotmail. And see how much privacy will remain, once the ability to search faces easily gets added to the internet.

“We need to start thinking of personal data as a kind of personal property,” Pariser writes. If he is correct – and he is – then what we think of as a question of technology is actually a question of justice. Why is it, for example, that, “while it’s illegal to use Brad Pitt’s image to sell a watch without his permission, Facebook is free to use your name to sell one to your friends”? Pariser comes as close as anyone has to explaining the misgivings that a lot of internet users feel. Boon though it is, there is something about the web as it is now exists that threatens to make us less creative, less productive and less free.

The writer is an FT columnist

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