Filter Bubbles Eli Parisier


Originally published in NAVA Quarterly, December 2013.

There is a problem bubbling away under all this talk of digital futures and piracy…

Back in 2011, the Australia Council released a Creative Industries report outlining how: ‘Australian artists and arts companies need improved digital infrastructure, content production, and commercialisation capabilities in order to capitalise on digital opportunities and compete with other sources of content … the Australian Government encourages creative industries to strive to be at the forefront of exploiting this infrastructure’[1]. 

That infrastructure was of course the NBN. Another government later, and we’ve got another strategic review of one of Australia’s largest pieces of public infrastructure that was designed for the future – remember that old thing? While the new Minister for Communications and the Attorney General for the Arts[2] work out how to split the difference between the government’s digital rollout plans and whatever shape the arts will end up in, the industry goes into a familiar holding pattern at the forefront of nothing. 

Meanwhile, the government recently announced that it intends to improve copyright legislation against Australia’s rampant internet piracy[3] – presumably by introducing a national web filter to block file-sharing sites and VPNs[4]. While everyone argues about the NBN, a recent APRA study revealed the more highly educated and affluent an Australian is, the more likely they are to pirate content online via private ISPs[5]. Blocked by location-based filters and higher priced local distribution providers, Australian consumers in their millions have unsurprisingly turned to online piracy, giving the powers-that-be little choice but to police the web, which is a bit like trying to catch butterflies with one hand.

Piracy is of course a major concern for the arts. Not only for content creators, but also for second-party providers (galleries, museums, festivals and general arts websites) as well as third-party providers (pirates!) redistributing free artist content. In a recent conversation at the New York Public Library[6], Chris Ruen, author of Freeloading, and musician David Byrne, discuss the monetisation of second-party providers and third-party pirate servers. They point out that the profits generated from these providers goes nowhere near the first-party content creators, and often credit for the work is dropped, or not properly acknowledged at all. 

While digital reproduction of art works – when attributed to the artist at least – is beneficial in promoting practices, creating international links and dialogues with those people or organisations that artists would not otherwise have access to, it is also problematic for copyright and a thorn in the side for over-charging distributors. In sharing your artwork on a website, you may also inadvertently be handing over your copyright and IP to a second- or third-party provider. Many artists have chosen to follow the public domain model, currently being championed by the BBC[7], futureeverything[8], Creative Commons[9], and various other groups that encourage creators to bypass copyright altogether and build a truly creative, digital public realm.

But in the background of this apparent kneecapping of local digital infrastructure, and clamp downs on online distribution, there is a bubble phenomenon occurring, where the web is slowly being reconstructed behind the scenes – not to suit any notion of the digital public or commons, but to meet the corporate concerns of those interests that hold the government by their nodes. 

When Google-founder Eric Schmidt said: “It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them”, he wasn’t talking about how we make content or even present content online, he was referring to the backend of the internet, the invisible world of algorithms that sit behind our every click and scroll. The easiest way to understand the impacts of this is to look at some startling visual representations:

(The World) 

Designed by Ruslan Enikeev, The Internet Map uses a semantic algorithm that applies quantum theory. Sounds complicated, but basically each major website and country is represented by electron-like bubbles that grow according to the amount of web traffic, and are pulled toward each other based on links between other sites. As one of the simplest visualisations of the Internet, it reveals the bigger picture of corporate blurring of borders through content distribution and traffic control.[10]

(The Powers That Be)

Designed by information architects Oliver Reichenstein and Chris Lüscher, The Web Trend Map 4 brings us down into the bubbles. It’s a visualisation of the web as a transportation map, a global city based on traffic and revenue, where Newscorp and PirateBay have huge towers in midtown, but Google has its own train lines. You’ll notice that there is no public space in this map. Instead we have the aptly named ‘Emperors Palace’ right in the middle of town, where the people who control the web reside.[11]

(And finally…us)

Here we get down to the nitty-gritty. It turns out we are not actually surfing the World Wide Web as we conceive it, but are in fact being geo-blocked, filtered, and having our content customised for us. In an excellent TED talk, Eli Pariser explains this global phenomenon and reveals the problems of filter bubbles and search algorithms that are creating an isolating ‘web of one’. Pariser presents a case against the growing restrictions of a controlled Internet, where there are serious blocks to critical information flow, created by replacing content editors (human filters) with artificial intelligence algorithms (robot filters). He pleads with global web developers to stop this worldview narrowing, and instead implement civic and creative responsibility into customised content.[12]

So while we wait for the NBN infrastructure to roll out (or not), we might pause to look at these bubbles that have formed around us, to honestly appraise what the web has actually become, and then ask what we collectively want it to be and how we might achieve that. If we do not want to be a planet of pirates[13], sending content creators into binary bankruptcy, then we need to ask ourselves: as artists and arts workers, how will we create, inhabit and protect this new digital public realm?


[1] Creative Industries, a Strategy for 21st Century Australia, Australian Government, 2011.
[2] Not his actual title.
[3] 'Protection of intellectual property...', The Australian, 15 October 2013.
[4] A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is used to cover up piracy, bypass geo-blocks, and other bad things.
[5] 'Online piracy...', The Australian, 10 June 2013.
[6] Music and Copyright in the Digital Era, New York Public Library, 5 December 2012.
[7] ‘The arts – free and on demand BBC’, The Space, 2013. Also see: ‘BBC makes Space for cultural history’, The Guardian, 6 Jan 2013.
[8] ‘Digital Common Space: Remixability’, Digital Public Spaces, Future Everything, 2013.
[9] Creative Commons.
[10] The Internet Map.
[11] The Web Trend Map 4.
[12] Eli Pariser, Beware Online Filter Bubbles, TED Talks, March 2011.
[13] For a hilarious take on copyright law and aliens (yes, aliens), read Rob Reid’s novel Year Zero, Random House, 2013.