The Personalised Internet (Part 2)

10/12/2012 3:40:57 AM

Are personalised results bad?

It's easy to have a one-sided view of content filters, and entire books have been written on the subject: Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble, for one. Pariser warns that "algorithmic gatekeepers" can leave us isolated in a "web of one” if they mean the internet no longer connects us together, introduces us to new ideas, new people and different perspectives (see

It's true that filtering mechanisms can mean you see more and more of the same type of content - a kind of ever-decreasing circle that reinforces your views and limits your ability to discover new websites (which might challenge your prejudices) because they’ve been excluded from your results.

Description: The top brower is a free VPN utility that anonymises your online activity

The top brower is a free VPN utility that anonymises your online activity

However, it’s important to remember that these algorithms take your lead. They're not actively censoring content, but merely using data held on the links you do and don't click to predict what you'll want to see next time. You could argue that your level of exposure isn’t any more limited, because you wouldn't have clicked on certain news stories even if they were shown in a set of search results. Filters simply mimic your online behaviour.

Filtering content can be a big time-saver - an undeniable benefit in today’s hectic world. Finding the information you need faster is a good thing, and Google’s localised results help to ensure UK users, for example, aren't bombarded with an irrelevant list of restaurants in Birmingham, Connecticut when they search for 'restaurants in Birmingham'.

Being able to see at a glance what the people you care about are saying on Facebook, without having to scroll through the content from your 650 'friends', makes things considerably easier, too. It’s possible to disable filtering (more on this later), but a better step might be to browse through your friends list every so often to ensure you haven't accidentally forgotten anyone.

If everyone saw the same search results worldwide, we’d be in a similar situation to the one where TV and newspaper editors decide what we see. Google would decide what's relevant to everyone. Would you rather be reading a personalised version of PC Advisor that included only the topics for which you had previously expressed a preference, or have the version you now hold in your hands where we decide what content to include? There are pros and cons for both approaches.

Without filtered data on the web, some argue that we would be overloaded with irrelevant information and unable to locate what's important. On the flip side, as Pariser points out, important and relevant shouldn’t be the only factors considered by these algorithms. They shouldn't, for example, block content that might make you uncomfortable or challenge your point of view.

Our main concern is that companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Google should make it more obvious to users that content filtering is taking place, and enable them to opt out of personalised search results if they so wish.

What you can do

It’s not possible to entirely escape content filters, but there are some steps you can take.

Google: It's easy for Chrome users to get non-personalised search results. Click the Spanner icon and choose Settings. Click 'Manage search engines...' and scroll down to the bottom of the list.

Enter 'Google UK non-personalised’ in the 'Add a new search engine’ field, and 'Google UKNP’ as the keyword. Finally, enter '' in the last field. This tells Chrome not to provide search results specific to you, but that you do want to see UK results. Click Make default and your next Google search will return a 'standard' set of results.

Description: It's easy for Chrome users to get non-personalised search results

It's easy for Chrome users to get non-personalised search results

Google recently introduced 'Search plus your world', which increases the level of personalisation applied to your search results when you’re signed into a Google+ account by adding in items from the social network. Click the globe icon at the top-right of the browser window to hide personal results.

If this sounds like too much hassle, consider using a different search engine, such as This doesn’t filter results, but you can set the region to UK via the More button to the right of the search bar (it defaults to US).

Facebook: This social network regularly changes its interface and options, but at press time there were a few things you could do to view a slightly less filtered News Feed. At the top is a Sort link; click this to toggle between Top stories and Most Recent.

This takes you only so far, though. A drop-down menu at the top-right of each post allows you to choose whether you see All updates, Most updates or 'Only important posts' from that person. You can also click on a person's name to go to their Timeline, then hover over the Friends button to add them to a list: Close friends, Acquaintances or other. Click Settings... in this same menu to choose j what type of updates are displayed.

If you really want to see posts from all your friends, hover your cursor over Friends in the left panel of the Home page and click More. Click Create list and enter a name, such as Everyone. Add each of your friends and click Create. It may take a while if you have hundreds of friends, but clicking on this list _ will then reveal posts from everyone.

Other changes to make in Facebook include ensuring that your privacy settings (click the down arrow at the top-right corner of the website) are correctly set. One recent change, for example, is that friends of anyone tagged in your posts can see that post. To disable this, choose Custom, then untick the box marked 'Friends of those tagged’. You can also limit who can see past posts.

In your profile, and in other online profiles, it's worth removing your birthday - or at least the year you were born. This information enables tracking companies to more easily identify you from others with the same name.

Avoid Tracking: If you don't want to be tracked, start by enabling your browser's private mode. With Internet Explorer 8.0 or later, you can enable InPrivate browsing by pressing Ctrl, Shift, P. The same shortcut works in Mozilla Firefox, too.

Description: Mozilla Firefox

Mozilla Firefox

Google Chrome users can click the Spanner icon and choose New incognito window (or press Ctrl, Shift, N). When you browse in an incognito window, pages won't be added to your web or search history. No cookies will be saved and pages won't leave behind any traces, other than the bookmarks you save and files you download.

Bear in mind that if you sign into your Google account from an incognito page, your web searches will still be saved in your Google Web History. To stop this happening, go to and click 'Turn Web History off.

Unfortunately, no browser's private mode is sufficient to stop companies tracking and seeing what you’re looking at online. Factors such as your screen resolution, browser plug-ins and the version of Windows you’re running are fingerprints left behind.

To prevent this, switch to a 'standard' browser such as Firefox, or use a smartphone browser. Disabling JavaScript is a powerful tool in preventing tracking, but it’s needed to make most websites work properly.

Another option is to use the Tor Browser from This is a free Virtual Private Network (VPN) utility that anonymises your online activity, preventing websites from identifying your location. Tor is available for Windows and Android devices, while a Tor browser bundle can be run from a USB flash drive in Windows, Mac and Linux.

Cookies are a hot topic at the moment, with a new EU law (the e-privacy directive) that came into force in May. Now, users must be made aware that a website uses cookies, and must accept them to continue using the site. Cookies can be useful, allowing websites to remember your preferences. However, they can also be used to track you, and it's worth occasionally clearing out your cookie cache.

In Chrome, click the Spanner icon, then Settings, 'Show advanced settings...'. Click Content Settings... in the Privacy section to find the cookie settings. Finally, click 'All cookies and site data...', Remove all.

Firefox users should click the orange Firefox button, then Options, and choose the Privacy tab. Enable the option to 'Tell web sites I do not want to be tracked' and click 'clear your recent history'.

In Internet Explorer 9.0, click the cog icon, then choose 'Safety and Delete Browsing History'. You can choose what to delete, and remove only cookies if you so wish.

Next Issue: Online privacy has become an increasing concern in recent years. From the way companies such as Facebook and Google use our data to the government that wants to closely monitor our online communication, our privacy is under threat. In the next issue, we'll find out how your status updates are being used to make money, and your online activities are being spied on to deliver targeted adverts, and explain what you can do about it.

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