Americans are concerned that efforts by Internet companies to tailor news content to individual users can give users a biased picture of current events and limit freedom of expression, a report from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Gallup finds.
Based on an online survey of more than twelve hundred Americans as well as interviews, the report, Major Internet Companies as News Editors (29 pages, PDF), found that 54 percent of respondents said it was a bad or very bad idea for Facebook, Google, and Yahoo to personalize content for individual users based on their interests, Internet search activity, and Web browsing history, while 45 percent said it was a good or very good idea. Younger respondents were slightly less concerned than older respondents, with 51 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 saying it was a good or very good idea, compared with 46 percent of those between the ages of 35 and 54 and 39 percent of those age 55 and older.
Funded by the Ford, Gates, and Open Society foundations, the survey also found that when asked specifically about news content, 73 percent of respondents — 77 percent of those age 35 and older and 61 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 — said Internet companies should show all users the same news topics, while 22 percent said they should tailor topics based on users' interests and past activity. Similarly, 80 percent of respondents — more than 80 percent of those age 35 and older and 74 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 — said companies should show all users the same items from the same news organizations, while 17 percent said they should show items only from certain news organizations based on users' interests and past activity.
According to the report, large majorities of respondents were very (63 percent) or somewhat (23 percent) concerned that increased efforts by Internet companies to exclude certain news items they see as problematic could give people a biased picture of the news, increase the influence of news that benefits the company and their preferred points of view (54 percent and 29 percent), limit the expression of certain points of view (53 percent and 29 percent), or increase the influence of certain news organizations at the expense of others (51 percent and 30 percent). In addition, the report found that 79 percent of respondents said they strongly or somewhat agree that major Internet companies should be subject to the same rules and regulations as newspapers and broadcast news stations, while 20 percent strongly or somewhat disagree.
"There are obvious tensions in public perceptions on these issues, and a seeming disconnect between expressed points of view and behavior," wrote Sam Gill, vice president of communities and impact at the Knight Foundation, in a blog post. "After all, people may decry personalization, but the value of these companies and their revenues would suggest that most users and consumers do, in fact, appreciate the level of personalization that the Internet provides."