Google decides what is most important for children

Por Kids and teens online

In our lectures and workshops about the Internet, parents still ask if their Gmail, Hotmail or Live e-mail accounts are truly private. Recently, a very surprised mother told us: “For a couple of days now, I have been exchanging emails with a friend telling her about my plans to visit nature parks in Norway this summer. In the right column of my email account there are appearing advertisements of guidebooks of Norway, hotels, cruises, etc… but, aren’t our e-mail accounts supposed to be private?” Not only I recommended her to read the terms and conditions of use of the entity hosting her free e-mail account, but I also briefly explained to her how the so-called “cookies” work.

It’s important to remember that on December 2013, the Spanish Data Protection Agency fined Google (owner of Gmail) for “seriously violating” citizens’ rights.  The Spanish Agency has given Google three fines of €300,000 each. They considered Google keeps user’s data “during periods of time that are undefined and unjustified” and it doesn’t clearly inform users about the fact that this information can be used “for multiple purposes”. In addition, Google “obstructs—and in some cases blocks—the rights to access, rectification, cancellation and opposition”.

A cookie or “web cookie” is a small piece of text from web pages and websites that you visit and which your browser collects and stores. On one hand, some of these cookies may be useful for users, because they allow the browser to “remember” things you looked for, such as the language used, etc.  On the other hand, cookies work for the benefit of other people, whose objective is to get the most exhaustive profile of you and of your tastes in order to show you advertisements you might be interested in. Many of the cookies that are most certainly installed on your device are able to identify you, they know when you click “Like” in a social media, the articles you’ve read and the products you’ve bought online.

However, besides the privacy issues, the major concern when it comes to children and teenagers shall be the way the world and their environment are presented to them by search engines like Google, in particular through cookies. And we should be worried about ourselves too.

A few weeks ago, I visited the website of a renowned retail chain of music, books and computers, searching information about the last record of a particular band. The very same day, as I was checking out a well known online newspaper, I saw an advertisement showing the cover of the record popping-out just on the right column of my screen. Later on, the ad was in a different newspaper, and then in another online store, and so on. Now, if you visit the website of such a store chain and click on the right mouse button on the little white page that appears besides the URL, you will see a menu listing the “cookies and website data”. In the case of the site I visited to begin with, over 400 cookies were uploaded by that page. My Google browser was informing hundreds of pages about my purchase.

And the thing is that I already have the CD. I don’t need any more advertisements about it. In the past, whenever I visited a webpage with music publicity, I could see a range of covers for different types of music. It allowed me to have a global idea about the latest releases in the market, and a more realistic perception. Now, I’ve been categorized, as I am always shown the same type of music. But the truth is that I like many different kinds of music (!). Since I noticed this, I constantly delete the cookies of the sites I visit.

But, what if we were talking about a more serious issue? If you look for information about a subject in Google or Facebook, it is quite likely that you won’t see the same links that I’ll find, and not in the same order. The companies use algorithms in order to learn about our tastes, and to show some things more frequently than others. That is to say, they will adapt the online world to your preferences, tastes and believes. If they find out that you tend to visit more catholic websites about specific religious subjects, they will stop showing protestant sites in your searches. If you are more progressive than conservative, conservative websites, articles or comments will gradually disappear from your search results.

Nowadays, we are reaching a point where the “customization” of Internet shows us what the algorithms of certain companies consider we’d like to see… But without ever asking anything. They aren’t showing us the world just the way it is: with its wealth, its different points of view, its different news… They’re showing us the world from a particular angle—the one that is supposed to fit in with us. But, who decides that I only want to receive news about indie music? Who decides that, because I belong to a Christian culture, I don’t want to know anything about the point of view of Jews or Muslims? And what about the most important issue with regards to education: is it a good thing that the information to which our kids and teenagers have access in their search engines or social media is selected by algorithms created by a company that will only show what they consider kids and teenagers have to see according to their tastes? What if we, parents and educators, actually consider that they should have access to UNBIASED information? What if we think that Internet should be a place for discovering the wide diversity of the world?

Furthermore, we know this doesn’t only happen according to “customization” criteria, but also with regards to commercial purposes and many other types of criteria. Any company or entity can pay for their products, their ideas or anything they sell to appear as the first option when you type a word in Google. It will appear as an “advertisement”, but it’ll be the first option, and sometimes several of the top entries are only advertisements.

However, we can and must go beyond that. Many computer experts, webmasters, etc. master what they call “positioning techniques”. It means that they know what to do to put your website among the first entries in Google. This is very important, since the overwhelming majority of users look for information in the first entry, some do it also in the second one, and hardly anyone reaches the third one. The thing is that if you follow certain criteria your positioning will go up. For instance, Google will give you a better positioning if your website has links to other pages and these pages are also linked to yours, even if these websites were created by you and only for this purpose. There exist even the so-called “link farms”, specifically created for hosting any kind of links and improving the positioning of the websites that hire them. If you frequently upload new contents, you are also promoted, even if the new content is only rubbish. If you add certain words in your metadata, you will also win positions, etc…  That means that even if your website offers nothing interesting about a certain subject, or if it tells lies and nonsense, or includes invented contents, you only need to know how to position it in Google and follow certain criteria, and then your position in the results will be higher than that of a website including a reliable study published by a team of professors from different countries. As simple as that!

The one good thing about Google is that if you want and know how to search, they can’t prevent you from finding interesting things. Thus, when I was looking for information on this topic, I found someone who knows the subject much better than I do and has created the expression “filter bubble” in order to refer to this situation and publicly denounce it. I’m talking about the American Eli Pariser, author of the book “The Filter Bubble”.  Pariser points out that we have been put into a sort of online bubble, completely customized, where we can’t actually decide what comes in and out; but we live inside the bubble and it influences our vision of everything happening around us. Pariser warns: “if the algorithms are going to show us the world and decide what we can see or not, we must ensure they don’t only show relevant information but also uneasy things, things that can be a challenge or very important matters”. I consider this point to be essential if we want our kids and teenagers to develop critical thinking, be able to compare different opinions and take advantage of the diversity of the world. There will be more realistic people and much less fanatics. We may not hold solid principles if we do not get the possibility of comparing them to other people’s principles. And no matter what we finally decide to think or believe, we will be much more tolerant and willing to listen and learn from others, if we get the chance to do so.

The practical conclusion, to be shared with teenagers, is:

  1. The world is not necessarily as it is presented to you by a search engine,
  2. Not all the information appearing in those search engines is true or faithful,
  3. The first entry is not necessarily the most important one and, above all:
  4. Delete the cookies after each session (¡!).

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