Algorithmic Neutrality and the Fallacy of a “Free and Open Internet”

Facebook is reportedly tweaking its algorithm to favor live video, and is primed to pay celebrities significant sums of money to broadcast on the service. At the same time, the social network, which boasts 1.6 billion users world wide, has rolled out a new “like” mechanism that allows you to more fully express your emotional reactions to the posts you encounter.

Example of the “like,” “love,” and “tears” reactions

On one hand, we can argue that these moves enhance the consumer experience and increase our odds of connecting with relevant content. On the other, these algorithmic “tweaks” pull us deeper into a world of Big Data and Big Analysis — what Michael Fertik (and others) call the reputation economy — the full impact of which we’ve yet to understand.

We’ve all had the experience of buying an item online and then seeing an ad for the exact same item, plus a few other goodies, appear on [insert your favorite publication or blog here]. We can also remember those days when ads scrolled across our inbox based on keywords found in our email correspondence.

As an avid online shopper, I’m guilty of getting sucked back into the endless advertising loop that is my ever-connected, digitally-enabled life. Sometimes it’s fun, so I don’t always mind the algorithms “directing” me to what I apparently want most in life — vegan chocolate and vacuum cleaners. But let’s think about what this technology is actually doing.

In today’s Internet ecosystem, priority is given to those who pay to get to the front of the line. Whether you’re a small business trying to gain new customers, an individual blogger looking to expand your platform, or a large conglomerate seeking to edge out your competitors, you can get placement in front of more eyeballs based on your willingness and ability to pony up the cash. In fact, while the Internet is unquestionably a place with low barriers to entry, provided you have broadband access, (which is far from a foregone conclusion for many people), expressly because there are so many people and platforms online, “pay for priority” is becoming the norm if you want to be seen and heard.

Maybe, once upon a time, perhaps not so long ago, you could garner traction and go “viral” just by creating amazing content and promoting it like mad on every social network known to mankind. In truth, there are still those breakthroughs today that capture millions of Vine loops, are Tweeted goo gobs of time, wrack up enough YouTube views to make PewDiePie jealous, and are shared a gazillion times on Facebook. But those occurrences are becoming fewer and farther between, and it is harder than ever to get seen or heard on the Internet. Heaven help you if you’re actually trying to monetize your content or run a business online as well.

Much like Facebook, Google recently announced a shift in its algorithm that will de-prioritize ads lacking an adequately high click-through-rate. It’s a move expected to increase the cost-per-click for ad campaigns (i.e. if you want to be seen, then you must pay more for that luxury). Likewise, it will make front page billing from organic search even more competitive (in short, break out the coffee and get to posting, because the winners will be the ones with the most “likes” and “shares”).

In this shifting algorithmic equation, the things we “click” and “like” get higher priority, and the very content we’re exposed to depends on the popularity of that content or our prior viewing and consumption habits.

How, then, does a new voice, business, or idea, break through in the crowded morass of the Internet?

To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with these new models. Facebook, Google, and any other service relying on algorithms, provide great value in filtering through the scores of content we might stumble upon online. And certainly, any entity willing to risk the time and capital to start a business is entitled to pursue strategies that make money. However, the evolving impact of algorithms raise fascinating questions (and pose even greater challenges) about how we understand the “free and open Internet.”

Certainly, the Internet is an open platform in that you can pretty much go and do what you want, where you want, and when you want. It is also free in the sense that, beyond what we pay each month to our Internet service provider, or the intangible price we “pay” associated with willingly relinquishing our personal data, for many services, we do not have to exchange money with edge providers just to use whatever service they’re offering. Sure, we can choose to pay for premium apps, the latest ad-free version of Candy Crush, or a subscription to Netflix or Hulu, but we don’t have to. But to call the Internet free and open is to assume that every person’s content is treated equally, that every voice has the same chance of being heard, and that each opinion or business has the ability to reach its intended audience based on the quality and utility of what’s being presented.

Knowing what we know about algorithms, and guessing at what’s possible in our “Big Data/Big Analysis” future, it’s unassuming folly at best and disingenuous misdirection at worst to say we have a free and open Internet.

So where does that leave us?

For sure, consumer protection, transparency, and equity should be at the heart of how we think about these things in the future. At the same time, we have to understand that the world we live in today is not the world we inherited, and hopefully, it will not be the same world we leave for our children.

If the goal is to leverage web-based technologies to benefit society, then we must consider what it takes to fully enable the Internet’s potential — to make sure that this powerful platform can benefit all people, and not just a well-connected, monied few. And unless we’re angling for our kids to live in a dystopic 1984 Matrix Terminator hybrid reality, we’ve got to start being real about how technology is changing and what it means for us as a society. Most of all, we have to put ultra-partisanship and super-stylized rhetoric to the side to figure out how we can pave the way for a truly universal Internet experience for all people.

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