Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Beware: The Man Behind the Search Curtain

-by Dana Lawit

Everyone assumes the future of the internet will look like this.

In this Internet, everyone has equal access, information is secure and reliable, connections and speed are readily available and we can all tweet, facebook, blog, comment, etc. to our heart's content.

This was shared during a conference I attended for women in the sciences with some students from my school. One of the presenters, Rebecca Fiebrink, outlined some of the global challenges scientists and engineers must solve in the coming decades. Among them, global warming, alternative energy, and the future of the internet. (Note: The puppy featured above is not same puppy from her presentation but you get the gist.)

She went on to say, that the future of the Internet could also just as easily look like this (again, not the same dog from her presentation, but you know...):

In this version, information and access is unreliable and unequally distributed. Private data isn't secure. Censorship abounds.

Today we see instances of each: censored web sites in China, varying bandwidth speeds in different geographic regions, and Twitter served as the free press covering elections in Iran.

The New York Times ran an op-ed earlier this week by Adam Raff of Foundem that outlines some of the algorithms Google uses to index web sites to yield search results and warns that perhaps we need to be a bit more attentive to the regulations that govern not only Internet content, but Internet searching.

I recently asked my students how they thought Google ranked search results. Responses varied from newest, most accurate, "best", and one student suggested most clicked on. The Internet, it turns out is a popularity contest (for now). Recently, Google has come under fire for not merely listing sites in terms of visits, but allowing priority for its own services and sponsors. The Internet it also turns out, goes to the highest bidder.

The reason I find all of this so fascinating is that it reminds me that just as important as teaching how to use technologies, we must teach how technologies operate. The Internet isn't a static force. We must prepare our students, as netizens, not only to use the Internet but prepare them to answer questions of how we use the internet -- how we access information, and what guarantees we want about that information.

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