When I read The Filter Bubble, it wasn’t the “search bubble” piece that caught my attention.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, author Eli Pariser‘s premise is that digital technologies are changing the way we get and interact with information–and that this has profound implications for democracy. The first part is pretty obvious: If you typically click on coffeehouse sites, Google is not going to recommend a tea shop. If you’re looking for Mexican restaurants, you’re not going to get Thai restaurant listings mixed into your search results. Run the same “Mexican restaurants” search a few more times, and then a broader search for “ethnic restaurants,” and what do you suppose will pop up first?

We can have a conversation about whether all this personalization is a good thing, but the reality is that most of us like having “relevant” search results. In the political context, this means that people who regularly click on Fox News stories aren’t likely to see a lot of search results for The Nation. So increasingly we hear what we want to hear; aka, we live in our own filter bubbles.

The new gatekeepers are anonymous.

Filter Bubbles

Here’s what grabbed my attention: we might think we’ve done away with the middlemen (e.g., newspapers informing and interpreting events), but we’ve really just substituted one middleman for another. Pariser writes:

“While enthrallment to the gatekeepers is a real problem, disintermediation is as much mythology as fact. Its effect is to make the new mediators–the new gatekeepers–invisible…

“Most people who are renting and leasing apartments don’t “go direct”–they use the intermediary of craigslist. Readers use Amazon.com. Searchers use Google. Friends use Facebook. And these platforms hold an immense amount of power… But while we’ve raked the editors of the New York Times and the producers of CNN over the coals for the stories they’ve missed and the interests they’ve served, we’ve given very little scrutiny to the interests behind the new curators.”

Pariser is correct. I trust Google more than I trust Facebook, but that’s mostly in relation to how my data is accounted for. It’s not based on corporate policies, or community investments, or labor practices, or any of the myriad of things that can impact where I spend my dollars. (I’m a Google apps user, so this isn’t about free versus paid.)

Maybe we should pay more attention to how these businesses operate.

The gatekeepers are regulating free speech. 

This isn’t a First Amendment issue, because these are private companies. (In contrast, this is, because it’s about the U.S. government’s actions.) But it is about free speech.

I’m pretty close to a constitutional absolutist on this topic, and I use that principle to guide my thinking. But a lot of people, and a lot of governments, have different concepts of what “free speech” means.

What does free speech mean to Google?

A fascinating article in The New Republic looks at how Silicon Valley’s content policy folks (self-dubbed “the Deciders”) are grappling with company guidelines over what can and cannot be posted online:

“As online communication proliferates—and the ethical and financial costs of misjudgments rise—the Internet giants are grappling with the challenge of enforcing their community guidelines for free speech. Some Deciders see a solution in limiting the nuance involved in their protocols, so that only truly dangerous content is removed from circulation. But other parties have very different ideas about what’s best for the Web.”

This isn’t easy stuff, but it’s profoundly important that we get it right–whatever that means.

What’s your takeaway?

Hat tip to Geoff Livingston for alerting me to the New Republic article.

Photo by Patrick Hoesly (Flickr).