Article Title

The Personalization Puzzle

Publication Title

Washington University Jurisprudence Review


Complex algorithms determine users’ search results and the content of their social media accounts. These algorithms often use machine learning and artificial intelligence, making it impossible to predict their output. Increasingly, these algorithms have been employed to personalize users’ online experiences. Google and Facebook use these algorithms to analyze users’ likes, clicks, search history, location, and other information to determine which articles, websites, and posts to include in search results and newsfeeds. Often users are completely unaware of the algorithms operating beneath the surface, controlling the information they receive. This lack of transparency makes it difficult for users to access the unbiased information necessary to make decisions, which is a key requirement for effective self-government. As web personalization becomes more prominent, it will challenge one of the fundamental basis of our democratic society; the access to unbiased information. By creating online echo chambers that present users with information that confirm their beliefs, theories, and biases, personalization stifles open discussion and debate. We need to balance Google’s and Facebook’s rights to free speech with access to diverse and contradictory information. In stark contrast to the dystopias imagined by Orwell and Huxley, it is not the government that threatens our individual rights via control, surveillance, and censorship, but private corporations, which are not bound by the First Amendment. Although the First Amendment does not prevent corporations from stifling speech, the rights and values promoted by the First Amendment should be the starting point of our analysis. Online personalization threatens our freedom of expression, which is critical to democratic debate and innovation.