Imagine you had a machine that gave you all the information you wanted on any subject in the world. Great, eh?
Until you find out that far from being unbiased and neutral, this information actually panders to your prejudices, confirms your political biases and reflects your own distorted world view. That machine wouldn’t be much use, would it? Worse than useless in fact, because it would be misleading you.
That machine is called a “search engine”.
All the major engines tailor their results according to what you’ve chosen in the past. So if you are more likely to click on links to Fox News, pretty soon Fox is going to dominate your news results. People with narrow views get their window on the world reduced to fit, broadminded people are lulled into thinking everyone else is too.
Alternative engine DuckDuckGo explains the problem nicely here, with jokes. Or here’s a Ted talk.
I’m not saying the search providers ever claimed to be fair and balanced. On the contrary, any sensible person knew that they had inevitable, systemic biases. Results naturally reflected the preoccupations of Internet users rather than the public at large – even now there’s still a difference. The ranking algorithm used plays a huge part, as does commercial pressure. Most deeply, they’re enormously biased just by language. There’s a lot more stuff about, say, the French contribution to space exploration written in French, while American sources inevitably predominate within English.
These biases I can allow for – but how can I allow for my own? I search for information to correct my preconceptions, not confirm them. The exact opposite of what I need is some kind of feedback loop. A monkey behind the monitor, aping my errors. Flinging back my own prejudice. I emphatically object to search providers doing this to me. Who was it that said hell is a hall of mirrors?¹
What can you do? Well one fairly obvious thing, if you don’t want Google or Bing or Yahoo spoon-feeding you personalised results, is to not tell them that it’s you. Log out of your search engine. It makes a difference; when I do I immediately find Fox news stories appear higher in the search results. Which is good – really. I don’t want a falsely benign impression of Rupert Murdoch‘s influence in this world.
They don’t want you to log out of course. They want to be able to match your search queries to the real you. This is one reason why they ply you with added services such as Google+ and Chat and YouTube and Documents and whatever else. If you log out of search, you’re out of all the social stuff too. Sneaky, huh? And as I was saying before, I will not be at all surprised if Microsoft and Facebook join forces to do the same.
So how can I use both Google search and Google+? (Which I do want to, despite all the horrible things I say about them.) Well, you can always use two browsers at once. Logged in on one for the social networking, not logged in on the other for the searching. It’s not illegal or anything. I use Firefox and Chrome in tandem most of the time.
But is it enough? Even logged out they still know your IP address, they probably have cookies. Even if they can’t identify you personally they will still tailor the results to your geographic location. Real neutrality requires stronger medicine. It’s worth investigating alternative engines that guarantee your privacy, like the DuckDuckGo I mentioned above. My preferred solution though is a search anonymizer such as Scroogle or (my favourite) StartingPage. These give you actual Google results without revealing any of your identity to Google – the best of all worlds, arguably.
Is that unfair to Google, getting their search results anonymously? I don’t think so. Search engines are there to help us find things, not to help things find us.
- OK it was me.
- DuckDuckGo: Ditch Google, Bing for Unfiltered Search (searchenginewatch.com)
- DuckDuckGo (pochp.wordpress.com)
- DuckDuckGo: popular search engines don’t offer true search results (geek.com)
- Many US ISPs in epidemic of covert search-hijacking of their customers (boingboing.net)