Is the Internet in Danger of Becoming an Echochamber? [Wamda Debates]

by Glen Dalakian II, February 9, 2013

This post is the second in a new content series called Wamda Debates. Every other week, the Wamda team debates a topic, industry, or challenge in the Arab world to identify trends, solutions, and remaining gaps and brainstorm ways to address them. 

Before the introduction of social networks, the internet was actually fairly private; people created screen names, aliases, goofy e-mail addresses and separate virtual lives.

This separation died with the birth of MySpace and especially Facebook, which forced users to use their real names and confirm their actual identities, merging their virtual and physical lives. 

Those who want privacy can still find it to a large degree; activists and others can encrypt their activity and disguise their online life.

For the majority of internet users, however, it remains an afterthought, as our lives are increasingly shared and “timelined” online. And as social networks like Facebook move to encourage us to be more open (mostly because this improves data collection), we are often left reactive and nervous about being subject to privacy changes.

Our team started discussing the issue by asking: Are social networks doing enough to communicate user privacy settings? 

As we debated the benefits of big data versus the need for privacy, we also began looking at the two extremes of internet policy:

1) Totally Open

What if all the data you search, share, read, write, and buy, is tied to your person? What if these data points were collected and anyone could look up your history at any time? Would you be comfortable with this?

Right now, this isn't the case- much of your data is as private as your privacy settings make it, and most social networks only sell or analyze data in the aggregate, short of being subpoenaed for a legal case (yes, Google will share your private data if it is deemed admissible evidence- you can read their policy here). 

If all of your data were searchable by anyone, however, privacy would be obsolete. Most on our team were uncomfortable with this scenario. 

Right now, the closest we come to this scenario is viewing personalized ads on Google, Facebook, and across the web, and seeing moments where information you thought was hidden or erased is still in existence. Our Community Manager Stephanie Nour Prince found it particularly troubling that after promising not to archive your past tweets on their platform, Twitter now offers users access to their entire history of past tweets, which are all available for public consumption.

2) Completely Closed

On the other hand, what would a totally private and closed internet mean for users?

Germany is one example we looked to that holds some of the world’s strictest online privacy rules, forcing Facebook and Google to tone down some of their features, including automatic geo-location and implementation of their “Street View” feature on Google Maps. 

As we discussed a completely closed internet, we recognized that, while we're mostly uncomfortable with a totally open internet, a closed internet isn't as valuable for us, because most of what we enjoy about sharing is discovering new things. Sharing data and interacting allows for a more personalized experience, and helps us to discover others and expand our interests.

Complete closure of the internet would cause us to lose our ability to understand others online in order to connect with them and be better prepared when reaching out in the real world; it could ruin some of what we value most about the internet. 

Personalization

Discussing the ways in which we value a certain amount of openness on the internet brought us to a new topic:

Should the internet work to recommend new topics and information to you? Or should it be very tailored to your existing needs? In other words, should the internet work to encourage exploration?

Some fear that the more the web becomes personalized, the more it limits us to our close circles and serves up the news and opinions that we agree with, a sort of content echochamber.

It might not be the internet’s responsibility to enlighten users about opposing views, but it's worth looking at the strength of personalization in any given browser's algorithm. How do these platforms determine and reveal what we want to learn about?

Not wanting to be too confined to my own interests is one reason why I turned off automatic word detection on my Google account. Technologist Ethan Zuckerman often discusses this concept of a “filter bubble”, especially on Twitter, where users can get caught up in their own conversations and never know about major topics in another bubble.

On the other hand, many appreciate the ease of searching with posts targeted to their interests, relevant advertisements, and recommendations to follow certain friends, organizations, and causes. I've found many old friends and expanded my interests just by clicking "Who to Follow" on Twitter.

Suggestions for Balanced Privacy

Ultimately, in finding a happy medium between total insulation and closure and total openness and exposure, we came up with a few ideas for what an ideal internet would look like:

  • Platforms should ask you to set privacy settings before your account is enabled (privacy setting should be in your face). 
  • When you sign into your account, the platform should automatically and randomly offer you a “view as” option to see how others see your account.
  • Every 30 days, users should be required to approve any changes to privacy settings or to profile design on the platform.
  • When searching online, perhaps 25% of the data a search engine provides should be random, in order to offer greater discovery and prevent the echochamber.
  • All of your data should, at the end of the day be yours, and easily transferable between social networking platforms.
  • Facebook’s social networking monopoly should be replaced by several smaller platforms competing for better customer service, privacy settings, and usability.

One final opportunity we touched upon is the need for a platform that can port your data from one social network to another, rather than forcing you to recreate your networks and identity each time (like OpenID).

Of course, for now, social networks prefer to own that data themselves for obvious reasons. Yet ultimately, we agreed, users have the power to decide the fate of each platform, as a mass protest will surely move the hand of a social network (likely faster than any given government). As of yet, there hasn’t been any major push for changing the status quo, but in seeking that middle ground of openness and ownership, the onus is on us to stay vigilant.

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Glen is Features Editor at Wamda. You can follow him on Twitter @glenjd2, connect with him on LinkedIn and Google+, or reach him at glen[at]wamda[dot]com.

 
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