Social Networks, Privacy, and Filter Bubbles

This blog post is part of my work for DPI-659: Media, Politics, and Power in the Digital Age at Harvard Kennedy School. The post assesses and responds to several key pieces on social networks, privacy, and filter bubbles, including: Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler’s Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (2009), Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (2012), John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives (2008), Rebecca MacKinnon’s Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom (2012), Sarah Lai Stirland’s “Internet Privacy: Are Lawmakers Thinking About It All Wrong” (2013), Jonathan Stray’s “Are we stuck in filter bubbles? Here are five potential paths out” (2012), and Eli Pariser’s Ted Talk on filter bubbles (2011).

Today we have unprecedented access to networks that amplify our ability to discover and experience the world online and offline. In the online universe, as in the real world, reciprocity and trust are critical to the formation of social capital. The challenge is balancing the need for openness and genuine connection in the digital realm with very real privacy concerns. Additionally, we need to find more transparent ways to sort through the vast quantities of information available to Internet users, in order to better manage the real and perceived consequences of “filter bubbles.”

Christakis and Fowler (2009) argue that the Internet and online networks enhance the power of real-world networks, providing new opportunities for interaction that allow us to achieve greater things. For instance, sociologists Keith Hampton and Barry Wellman found in their study of “Netville” — a Toronto suburb that provided free broadband access to residents — that those with access developed stronger and more numerous connections. Rheingold (2012) notes that the web allows individuals to truly thrive online through harnessing the power of small world networks and weak ties. In a world of networked individuals and societies, those who can bridge diverse networks will accrue power.

The ability the Internet grants us to access and leverage new information and connections, however, comes with a price (privacy/security), as well as some pitfalls (among them, filter bubbles). As Pariser’s TED Talk and Stray’s post highlight, we haven’t yet developed a satisfactory or transparent way to sort through the information that we search on the Internet. To make progress on this front, we need Internet search engines to provide users with a greater degree of control over what’s being filtered in and out of their queries (Pariser suggests a sliding scale of personalization). And, as Stray notes, we also need a clearer sense of what we expect a “diverse” Internet experience to look like.

As we share more information digitally in the process of building and interacting with our networks, we also give away details about our identities (often to unintended audiences). Palfrey and Gasser (2008) strongly caution the first generation of “digital natives” to remember not only their online identities (over which they have some control), but also their “digital dossiers” (over which they have virtually none). Governments and corporations retain and control vast quantities of personally identifying information that is used to market products to consumers (and to shape our filter bubbles). And these data are often un-secure (e.g. the British government’s accidental leak of millions of peoples’ sensitive information in 2007).

Navigating this complex landscape reminds me of how critical it is for people to be digitally literate. While my generation may be the first to carry our digital footprints from adolescence through adulthood, we all need better information about how to take advantage of the tremendous power the Internet grants, while making smarter decisions about its risks. I believe that non-participation or minimal online participation (though tempting at times) are not the answer, as they risk ceding our digital narratives to others. Just because we don’t blog or tweet, does not mean that there aren’t others blogging or tweeting about us. We need to foster a culture of smarter Internet use, given that virtually nothing is (or stays) private online.

Beyond steps that individuals can take to protect themselves on the Internet, however, there’s also a need for greater government oversight when it comes to people’s personal information and privacy. As MacKinnon notes, building accountability “into the fabric of cyberspace” will require “political innovation to match the rapid technical innovation” (2012, 31). Here important lessons can be gleaned from other countries. For instance, in Estonia, where access to the Internet is considered a human right, citizens have the ability to monitor and make decisions about the use of their personal information. No sensitive information (such as political affiliation) may be used without individuals’ consent.

While a more robust regulatory framework in the United States would have difficulty keeping up with companies’ evolving means of tracking personal data online (see Stirland on the pitfalls of the “Do Not Track” approach), it’s critical that frameworks are set up to manage the parts of the issue that they can, and that governments are held accountable. In addition to initiatives from the non-profit and private sectors (for instance, the increasing use of personal clouds), government actors will need to be further involved if we are to get smarter about keeping up with the Internet and its changes.

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