In his 2011 Ted Talk, Eli Pariser raised concerns that our view of the world was being distorted by algorithms making choices to customize what we see based on our preferences. Running a geographically distributed network provides us insight into just how diverse the Internet is and how different it can look depending on where you are.
The view you get of the Internet is affected by many different factors. As Eli Pariser discussed in his Ted Talk, some algorithms are aimed at customizing your online experience to provide a “better” one, such as a news site that uses your location to provide a local news feed. Companies that are paying to reach you with advertising are another factor that influences your view.
This online “filter bubble” can result in some amusing or disturbing trends. Recently I was looking for fireplace equipment and suddenly all of the ads showing up on the sites I visited were for stores that sell fireplace equipment. So far not too surprising. I was surprised, however, a few days later when I looked over the shoulder of my daughter who was playing a game on a completely unrelated site, and saw that the ads being displayed to her were all for fireplace equipment. While I started to feel like I was being stalked, you could still argue that it provided me some benefit, since I was clearly looking for fireplace equipment.
There are other trends, which are clearly not beneficial, such as the direct censorship we are currently seeing in Turkey, or the example reported by the Wall Street Journal a couple years back on how Mac users were preferentially shown more expensive hotels. At best this kind of filtering can cost you money, at worst it can lead to incorrect assumptions that adversely impact business or political decisions.
One of the truly frightening things we have seen is that even basic facts can become skewed because of the tailored reporting. This can lead to radically divergent views, which cannot be easily reconciled. Effectively, this tailoring is changing people’s worldview to the point they can’t find common ground to even have meaningful discourse. I firmly believe clarity of information is critical to not only making personally good decisions, but also being able to have meaningful political discourse.
For quite awhile now Ntrepid has been making products to provide our customers ways to get a clear picture of the ground truth, by letting them look at sites as seen by different geographies and other demographic features. Our new secure browser, Passages, is bringing this capability together with security and oversight enhancements at a price point that will make getting a safe and unfiltered view of the Internet accessible to everyone. Our Nfusion product does this as well, but in a completely sandboxed and insulated workstation platform. And for help with unrestricted online data collection, our ION solutions can help, and can plug right into existing web harvesting tools.