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Follow the Filter Bubble

US Government asked Google for user data 4,601 times.


/ June 29th, 2011 /

What does Google do with all that data they collect on us? Most of it sits in massive data centers — quietly providing users with more “relevant” search results and news. But what happens when governments get involved?

That’s what Google’s latest transparency report provides — a detailed look at who’s asking for data and how much Google gives up. They even have an nicely arranged website for those interested in the stats.

The newest report was released today, detailing the six-month period of  July-December 2010. For curious individuals in the US — Google has received 4,601 user data requests from the US Government over the most recent six-month period and has complied with 94% of those requests (the highest compliance rate).

Other countries making full use of their information request power include: Brazil, France, the UK, and India.

The old adage holds true — “With great power vast quantities of data, comes great responsibility.” Good for Google for providing such a detailed and accessible analysis of this data.


What’s the Internet hiding? Lets find out.


/ June 8th, 2011 /

What does the filter bubble look like? We decided to do a little experiment to help visualize what’s taking place.

The comparisons below only scratch the surface of what the Internet’s filters are up to, but they give a good troubling idea.


News on Google, then and now


/ May 4th, 2011 /

Google has learned a thing or two in the past ten years: Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan has put together a fascinating post comparing screen shots of Google search results from the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks with results following the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death on Sunday night.

The differences are stark. A full six hours after the 9/11 attacks, Google’s search results for “World Trade Center” still gave no indication that anything was amiss. The company resorted to using ad space for news updates, and its home page told users “If you are looking for news, you will find the most current information on TV or radio.”

Cut to today: since Google’s search results now include social media updates and news stories, users looking for news about bin Laden on Sunday night were able to get up-to-the-minute information.

These are, needless to say, major improvements. But it’s worth noting another big change at Google since 2001 that doesn’t advance the cause of an informed citizenry: the company now automatically personalizes everyone’s search results. In all likelihood, Sullivan’s search results for “Osama bin Laden” on Sunday night were different from mine, which were different from yours.

We might hope that for a story this big, Google would scale back the whole personalization thing a bit. After all, it’s one thing to personalize the results of two people in different cities searching for “movie theater” — it’s another to serve up different results to two people who are trying to get timely, reliable information about a news story of international significance. But while researching the book, we discovered that Google does personalize results for these kinds of Big Stories: when the BP oil spill was dominating headlines last summer, we found that one person searching for “BP” mostly got links to news stories about the spill, while another got investment and financial information about the company. And, as Eli demonstrated in his TED talk, one Googler who searched for “Egypt” during the recent protests got lots of news results, while another got links to travel sites and the CIA World Factbook.

As Eli puts it, there simply is no standard Google anymore — not even for major stories like these.


Melvil Dewey and The Legacy of Google’s “Knowledge Group”


/ May 3rd, 2011 /

Tech Crunch is reporting today that the “Search Group” at Google is no more.  From now on, it will be a part of a team called the “Knowledge Group.”

Engineering lead Udi Manber describes the mission of the new group:

“The challenge posed to us by Larry, Sergey and Eric was to find a way to help people share their knowledge. This is our main goal.”

In his TED talk and book, Eli suggests that we’ve replaced the human editors of the past with the algorithmic ones of the present.  In many areas — particularly news where  personalized facebook and twitter feeds have taken the place of shared mainstream media sources — this is true.

Google’s step today to create a “Knowledge Group,” however, makes me reconsider whether the algorithmic editing of information is really so new at all.  Since the beginning of the written word, people have been devising systems to classify information and “put it in order” so that individuals can find the particular knowledge that is relevant to them at a certain time.   Google’s engineers can be understood as the new generation of the unsung heroes of information ordering — librarians. (more…)


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    "'Personalization' sounds pretty benign, but Eli Pariser skillfully builds a case that its excess on the Internet will unleash an information calamity—unless we heed his warnings. Top notch journalism and analysis."

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