Free Tools, the Distorted Web, Privacy, and Your Students’ Critical Thinking Skills

Until I saw this TED talk, I didn’t care much that free Web 2.0 tools like Google and Facebook were collecting massive dossiers of information about my online habits. I thought they were just using it to serve me more relevant ads and improve my user experience. It seemed like a small price to pay for access to the many awesome online communication and collaboration tools they provide.

In this talk, I learned that sites like Google and Facebook actually skew your search results to show you different information based on what they think you’ll like. The speaker shows how different people got different Google results when searching for “Egypt” in the wake of the politial protests there this spring. Rather than giving you an accurate view of hits relevant to your search, these sites favor certain sites over others in an attempt to show you content it thinks you’ll like.


Seeing this talk reminded me of the billboard I recently saw near the Bay Bridge in SF, loudly proclaiming: Billboard "Google Tracks You. We Don't."

The Experiment

I decided to go Google-free for a week and use DuckDuckGo for all my searching needs to see how different the search results would be.

I did a very interesting little experiment: I searched “income inequality” in DuckDuckGo vs Google (see links for results). I didn’t see much difference in the search results until I noticed a search result in DDG that I don’t agree with— that Income  Inequality “doesn’t matter“. Anyone who knows me (and who knows me better than Google?) would take it for granted that I think income inequality is a problem. Of all the different things one could say about income inequality– I thought we (as a society) were all on the same page that it’s not a good thing. I probably fit squarely inside some Google framework of a Bay Area, liberal educated white middle-class NPR listener who would be shocked and horrified by such callous libertarian thought. I think this is part of what the speaker in the TED talk was getting at– that internet filtering removes viewpoints that challenge our own. My time with DDG is making me wonder if my search results help reinforce my certainty that my view of reality is the correct one.


This little revelation led me to try the mother of all divisive search terms: “Abortion”.

The Google Results Page:

abortion   Google Search

The Google results seemed a little too encouraging for me to get out there and get an abortion– a large part of the page was taken up telling me where I can go to get an abortion in my neighborhood right now! I’m just hoping that these search results are calculated based on my liberal politics and not by some measure of my overall value to the gene pool!

The results were heavily oriented to my physical location, giving me news and vendors of abortion in Oakland. There was news about the political struggle around abortion, but they presumed that I had already made my mind up about the issue, and that I’m “pro”.

The DuckDuckGo Results Page:

abortion at DuckDuckGo

By contrast the DuckDuckGo results featured a spectrum of search results from Conservapedia to, to the HuffingtonPost by way of a decidedly unfiltered mixture of different viewpoints along the way. It did not presume that I already knew anything about the subject, and so it gave a mixture of search results that offered several different ways to look at the issue.

If I had any uncertainty at all about this important decision, I would rather be looking at search pages that don’t make that decision for me ahead of time, wouldn’t you? Now of course abortion is an extreme example, but the fact that DDG returns such diverse search results gives you an appreciation for how many different perspectives there are on reality, and how that diversity can look in search results.


I used DuckDuckGo for a week as my desktop search engine of choice, replacing the default search engines in my Firefox, Chrome, and even my Android phone’s default search engine. Generally the results were relevant, complete, and quick (but not instant like Google Instant). I didn’t feel like I was suffering a performance drag– unless I was looking for something local. When I search for Oasis Market, Google just knows that it’s the one in Oakland, while DDG returns the one in Minnesota. This was especially annoying when searching it from my Android phone– the experience of trying to get directions to a spot in SF via voice search was enough to put me off DDG altogether.
I really fell in love with the !bang shortcuts— they allow you to search many 3rd party sites and topics from DDG just by entering a code like !g or !facebook before your search query. They have shortcuts for almost any major site you can think of, as well as great generic !bang searches for images, file types, and programming languages. The selection is staggering and has revolutionized the way I search the web period. This alone makes it an essential service and the very best way I’ve found to search various sites quickly, all within my search bar.

Eventually, despite its very capable service, I was relieved to get back to my hyper-relevant, instant-searching, location-aware overlord with a capital G. I’ve been playing with it and I’ve figured out a way to easily call up DDG with a keyword in Chrome so I can use it when I want it and skip it when I don’t. Using the technique that I discuss here I made a keyword for DuckDuckGo search in my Chrome Omnibar. This makes it so I can simply type “ddg” before my search terms and Chrome will search DuckDuckGo instead of Google. This is nice because while Google remains my default search engine for when I’m feeling googly, I can just append “ddg” before my search terms and I’ll get DuckDuckGo results. I really think this is the best of both worlds, and it’s the new way I search the web.


So What?

Like me, you may not worry much about the profiles that companies are amassing about you. It does seem to be a small price to pay for the incredibly useful tools like Google Docs, Facebook, and Google search. However, these services are making lots of money collecting and selling your personal data to advertisers– Lifehacker aptly puts it: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product“. While I have (so far) felt ok opening myself to this kind of vulnerability, it gives me pause to think that I’ve been recommending that my students do the same. Is this responsible for teachers to do when the real-world consequences of exposing personal data are not fully understood? Will we one day find ourselves regretting that we gave up so much of our personal data to cloud companies, and when we do, will we feel responsible that our students did it too? Should teachers seeking students’ liberation and empowerment be on the vanguard of software efforts that preserve and enhance user liberty and control such as DiasporaFreedomBoxLockerProject, and Free/Libre Open Source software?


Aside from privacy issues though, the Orwellian issue of how our experience on the web is distorted has implications for students’ development of critical thinking skills. Central to critical thinking is the idea that reality can be viewed from very different lenses and perspectives. If our search engines and social networks (for many, their web portal on the world) provide us with a distorted view of reality, do we lose the ability and the desire to consider divergent viewpoints from our own? If students’ online experience can be tailored to their tastes like an iTunes Genius playlist, what are they missing out on? Where is the chance to see the unexpected, the infuriating, and the serendipitous? Don’t we have a right to steer them towards experiences that push them out of their comfort zones? And if so, should we be starting with the search engines and software tools that they will depend on after they’ve left our classes?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments…

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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