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Philanthropy and the 'Filter Bubble'

August 01, 2011

(Helen Brunner is director of the Media Democracy Fund, which partners with funders to make grants that protect and promote the public's rights in the digital age. In March, she answered five questions for PND.)

Filterbubble _wordcloud We all understand that the Internet and technology are changing the world and impacting how we -- and our grantees -- work. Like the printing press, television, or other past leaps forward in information and communications technology, this advance is bringing with it new opportunities and new problems. One of those new problems is that algorithms are making decisions about what you see online -- and those algorithms are deciding to show you only what you "want" to see.

It's a problem recently brought to light by Eli Pariser in his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You. Eli joined me, and several dozen funders, earlier this month for an MDF Talk to discuss the wide-ranging implications of the "filter bubble" for philanthropy.

The Filter Bubble details how the Internet isn't living up to its potential to expand our access to a diversity of views. Instead, we are increasingly relying on filters to help answer our questions and point us to things we're interested in. Using algorithms, these filters -- Google, Facebook, and others -- are personalized to show us the information they determine we "want" to see based on our past searches and page views. As a result, the information we see is constricting into a smaller and more limited world, short circuiting the potential of the Web to add to knowledge and build bridges between disparate viewpoints.

Almost every current Web site and service is already personalizing our information through algorithms. Personalization is one way to help us wade through the mountains of information available online -- and it makes a lot of sense for advertising and selling products. But such filtering has deeply concerning repercussions for democracy and civil society.

The Filter Bubble has been getting a lot of well-deserved press, and I certainly recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand how communications is evolving.

But the book raises even broader questions for funders.

Many funders recognize that there are decisions being made about the structure and protections of the Internet. We understand that these decisions will have a major impact on issues as diverse as education, health, civic participation, and international human rights.

But even the most plugged-in among us would be forgiven for thinking that these important decisions were being made only by regulators or elected officials. Today, as The Filter Bubble makes clear, we need to recognize that companies, engineers, and coders are a major factor in those decisions.

These are big decisions. Important public services and utilities, including the library, public television, telephony, and the postal service are moving or have moved online, while new developments in education and social networking seem to spring up every day. Things like the filtered Web experience can have an enormous impact on the success or failure -- indeed, the very framing -- of issues that funders most care about.

It's a new world. As funders, we need to recognize and address the challenges it presents and support decisions which ensure that information and communication in the digital age remain open and fair.

(Illustration credit: Nicholas Scalice)

-- Helen Brunner

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