Yesterday some of the Web’s most valuable properties (including Google, Twitter, Wikipedia and Mozilla) called users to action. These companies ‘blacked out’ their sites for American Censorship Day and asked users to sign electronic petitions against SOPA and PIPA, the anti-piracy legislation under review by Congress.
You may have noticed that Facebook kept its silence. Going dark for a single day would have cost the company an estimated $12 million. By the end of the day Google’s link garnered 4.5 million signatures and there were more than 2.4 million tweets about SOPA.
This is big news, and it’s not just about the overwhelming response rate. At the core, these companies say that SOPA and PIPA introduce online censorship as the means to combat copyright infringement. They claim the bills threaten American innovation and entrepreneurship, online security, and freedom of expression. They’ve got a point. Bill sponsors have pulled their support.
Prior to yesterday’s blackout, concerned members of the American public had already spoken out against the pending legislation. As citizens, our concerns fell on deaf ears. Enter the big guys with their rallying cry and suddenly our elected officials begin to pay attention. In fact, TechCrunch published a terrific article about this double standard, so there’s no need to rehash this particular issue.
There is, however, another double standard that no one has brought forward. Some of these Web properties practice a form of censorship themselves. Conduct a Google search and the results presented have been filtered based on an algorithm that extrapolates what the search engine thinks you’ll want to see. The more Google thinks it knows about you, the more narrow your results. Over time users gain less and less access to ideas that challenge their personal views of the world. So, while the motivation may be different from that driving SOPA, the end result still qualifies as online censorship.
Behaviorally based filtered searches limit our potential for cultural and economic growth. We search for information because we’re curious. Perhaps we’re conducting research to solve a problem. Exposure to new ideas sparks innovation. We see issues in a new light, conceive of new business opportunities, or perhaps gain new respect for cultural differences. Limiting search results behind the scenes only serves to reinforce pre-existing biases, which inadvertently makes us more narrow-minded. As a result, behaviorally based search filters limit our freedom of expression, innovation and entrepreneurship… some of the very things these companies say SOPA and PIPA threatened.
To discover the broader implications of online filtering, you may want to check out The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. It’s an enlightening read.