Law in the Internet Society

Choice Blindness and Internet Autonomy

-- By TheodoreSmith - 01 Jan 2009

The popularization of the internet has changed the relationship between the individual and information. The force behind these changes largely derives from a shift in the way information and content are distributed: from the one-way “push" broadcast model of television and radio to the more symmetrical and interactive "pull" model of the internet. The ability of the consumer to choose the information she sees, along with the ability of each user to create and share her own information, has the potential to break the old monopoly model of broadcast television and radio; users, rather than broadcasters, have the ability to dictate what information and entertainment they are exposed to.

Although the transition from push to pull media creates an excellent opportunity to free the channels of communication from the hegemony of broadcasters, the two-way structure of a push network, and in particular the internet, comes with significant dangers to individual autonomy. The clearest and most often discussed threat arises from the lack of wide-spread network encryption and the incomplete anonymity of internet users: any entity positioned along the chain of communication can identify, intercept, and examine information sent to and from the end user. The ability to monitor and identify user traffic allows well placed companies – such as the user’s Internet Services Provider (ISP) and the owners of websites – to both build targeted databases recording a user’s preferences and behavior, and utilize this data by tailoring ads and content to a particular user’s tastes or weaknesses.

While the specificity of such tailoring may represent a vast leap in the effectiveness of targeted marketing techniques, the general approach is neither new nor dependent on the particularities of a pull network. A newer and more fundamental risk arises from the basic structure of the pull network itself: the appearance of individual choice.

By following a link or accessing an IP address on the internet, a user is actively choosing to avail themselves of a certain webpage or piece of content. It is typically taken for granted in this context that these choices will be honored - that the data requested will be the same as the data presented. This very appearance of choice raises a number of new concerns. In a 2005 study, Petter Johansson published evidence of a psychological phenomena he titled "choice blindness." In his study, an experimenter presented pairs of photographs showing different faces. The subject was asked to select which of each pair she considered more attractive. After the selection, the subject was presented with the photo she had chosen and asked to justify her pick. On certain trials, however, the pictures were surreptitiously switched after the initial decision; the individual was presented with the photo she had not selected in place of her actual choice. Johansson found that a large majority of the participants not only did not notice this substitution, but gave detailed explanations justifying their supposed choice – even when presented with pairs of highly dissimilar faces. Indeed, the study found no difference between the justifications given in support of the actual choices and the confabulated explanations produced in support of the false choices. The illusion of choice not only blinded the participants to the substitution, but also created a mental state in which the individual leapt to justify their supposed decision.

The structure of the internet, like any other pull network, is built around this same illusion of choice – that information requested will be information received. This illusion provides a perfect framework for the application of marketing and misdirection utilizing choice blindness phenomena. The substitution of webpages or products by a content provider or ISP is not only likely to go unnoticed, but is likely to prompt justification and acceptance in the end user; the very appearance of free choice that makes the internet valuable creates the circumstances for a loss of autonomy by the consumer. Indeed, a 2007 follow-up study by Johansson showed that the behaviors demonstrated in the initial study translate well into an internet context; the results are not dependent on face to face contact.

Although choice blindness is easy to demonstrate in laboratory conditions, it remains to be seen whether the effect poses an actual risk to the autonomy of internet users. In both cited studies, the suspicion of the subject muted the emergence of the phenomena. Insofar as users treat the internet as an inherently untrustworthy source of information, the appearance of choice may not be sufficient to trigger the kind of confabulated explanations seen in Johansson’s studies. Indeed, if such misdirection and substitution becomes ubiquitous, the very success of these techniques may inure users to the phenomena; a lack of trust in the network’ s ability to honor the choices of its users may destroy the effectiveness of the approach.

While these arguments cast some uncertainty as to the actual risks posed by choice blindness, the difficulties should not be overstated. The assumption of free choice is pervasive to the functioning of the internet; a rapid transition to a system in which users are entirely distrustful of the results of their requests and wary of these techniques does not seem plausible. Even if a set of educated users becomes aware of the dangers associated with the choice blindness phenomena, and even if they are able to maintain a constant state of suspicion and alertness when browsing, it is unlikely that all, or even a majority of users will conduct themselves with such vigilance. Indeed, coupling the choice blindness phenomena with the ability of content providers and ISPs to collect and collate user histories highlights an even greater threat: the possible creation of an experimental database allowing marketers to develop and fine tune their substitution and marketing techniques. If choice blindness emerges under the relatively unsophisticated conditions of Johansson’s experiment – using highly dissimilar faces and only a single piece of pertinent information – it is reasonable to assume that concerted research and experimentation has the potential to cause an effect far greater and more subtle than anything found in the laboratory.

  • This is an interesting idea, but it needed to be both more completely defined and less aggressively marketed. Phorm, NebuAd and other behavioral marketers might replace an ad you didn't know you were going to receive with another they want you to click on instead, but there's no element of either real choice or false choice, except the choice to receive ads you could filter out anyway.

  • In other words, barring the all-network oppression structure of the Chinese Communist Party, which can replace one web page with another on the national level, there is no untrustworthy intermediary that can't be overcome by a trustworthy and resourceful browsing agent. Even the CCP, after all, loses to the encrypted proxy plugins approximately all the time. An intermediary that doesn't give you the base page you are trying to read on the web won't be your intermediary long, unless no competitor offers that much unfiltered communication. So that's not really plausible. And the crap someone gives me that I wasn't trying to receive I only receive if I'm not using a user-friendly browser, which thanks to free software you are pretty certain always to have available.

  • And of course this isn't a paper about "the Internet," a reification I've mentioned you should stop using. It's about web interactions using eyeball-directed browsers, which is kinda the Internet the way Times Square is New York City.

  • So I think what we're left with is a really good jumping off point for something that doesn't try to be about The Future of The Internet, but rather about the ethnomethodology of web advertisements.


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r3 - 03 Feb 2009 - 02:04:16 - EbenMoglen
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