So you want to pop your filter bubble — to see the neutral, un-filtered, un-personalized web. How do you go about it?
Unfortunately, there are no magic bullets: The ad companies and personal data vendors that power and profit from personalization are far more technologically advanced than most of the tools for controlling your personal data. That’s why The Filter Bubble calls on companies and governments to change the rules they operate by — without those changes, it’s simply not possible to escape targeting and personalization entirely.
But that doesn’t mean all is lost. Here are 10 simple steps you can take to de-personalize your web experience. They won’t work forever, but for now they’ll take you out of your own personal echo chamber.
2. Erase your web history. Those who remember their web history are doomed to repeat it. Much of Google’s search personalization (though not all) is powered by your web history — the list of sites you’ve visited via Google. By default, if you’re logged in Google tracks this for you, compiling a list that can be years long. To remove this data store:
3. Tell Facebook to keep your data private. More than any other company, Facebook has made a massive amount of previously private data public. On a number of occasions, the company has changed data settings so that what was once private is now public (for example, the pages you Like were private but are now mandatorily public). And while these changes aren’t clear to users, they make it possible for companies like Rapleaf to build and sell profiles of you to whomever they want. So, the primary thing to remember is: Never tell Facebook anything you don’t want the whole Web (and world) to know about you. To add additional protections, set your Facebook privacy settings all the way up. (Facebook explains how to do that here.) If you’re logged into Facebook, it may also transmit information about you to other websites — you can turn off Instant Personalization by following the steps here.
4. It’s your birthday, and you can hide it if you want to. One of the biggest challenges for personal data vendors like Experian, Acxiom, and Rapleaf is figuring out who is who. Say you’ve got the list of John Smith’s Facebook Likes, and you want to match that with, say, his voting records. How do you go about it, given that there are thousands of John Smiths out there? As it turns out, one of the most common “keys” for identifying particular people is your birthday. The number of John Smiths who share your birthday is far smaller — often there’s just one. So, keep your birthday to yourself when you can. Take it off your Facebook profile — or even just take off the year, which makes it much less useful. Revealing it rarely results in better services, but for data miners, it’s gold. (By the same token, always using “firstnamelastname” as a username also makes it easy for companies to match data about you from many different websites. Plus, it’s way less fun than something like “Dragonmachine38”)
5. Turn off targeted ads, and tell the stalking sneakers to buzz off. If you’d rather not be followed around the internet by merchandise you’re vaguely interested in, the major ad networks offer a relatively easy opt-out. You can quickly alert many of them in one place here (this is a voluntary restriction, so undoubtedly there are other ad networks that don’t abide by these rules.) You can also turn this off in your browser:
6. Go incognito. This one’s easy: most recent browsers have a “private browsing” or “incognito” mode that turns off history tracking, hides your cookies (and deletes the new ones when you close the window), and logs you out from sites like Google and Facebook. By opening a page in this mode, you can more easily see how different your cookie-driven personalized version is. There’s a catch, though: Since many companies (including Google) use data that doesn’t live on your computer to personalize, you may see different sites than a friend even in incognito mode.
7. Or better yet, go anonymous. Sites like Torproject.org and Anonymizer.com allow you to run all of your browser traffic through their servers, effectively removing some of the signals that come through when you’re in incognito mode.
8. Depersonalize your browser. If you’re using one of those sites, you’ve turned off your cookies, and you’re in incognito mode, there’s no way that anyone could tell who you are, right? Not so fast. As it turns out, every request to download a web page reveals a lot about how your computer is configured — and many of those configurations are unique. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) makes it easy to see how unique your settings are here. And they give some good guidelines on how to make your settings harder to track here.
9. Tell Google and Facebook to make it easier to see and control your filters. While both companies provide nominal tools to access your personal information and manipulate your filters, they mostly fall far short of actually useful. This is partly because many of the engineers we’ve talked to don’t believe that this is something people really care about. You can let them know by getting in touch here:
10. Tell Congress you care. Lobbyists for the big personalizers and data vendors are telling Congress the same thing: consumers don’t really care about this stuff, and it’s not worth seriously regulating. Your letter to your Senator or Representative can help counteract this trend and demonstrate that we are paying attention and want action. Write Congress here: