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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . 

Bet you’ve heard that one before, even if you didn’t have to read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities back in high school. And if it’s trivia night and you can’t remember anymore who wrote it, just punch it into your phone and voilà, you’ll see pages and pages of websites telling you who, what, and where it came from. 

You’ll also realize that sentence just keep on going and going. . . 

it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness. . .

Of course Charles Dickens wasn’t predicting how the internet would work, but those words sure seem to fit these days, especially when it comes to search engines and how they’re monitoring, and often manipulating, the content you view online.

capitol buildingSenate lawmakers in DC are trying to address this issue by proposing legislation that requires search engines such as Google to disclose the algorithms they use in ranking internet searches and give consumers an option for “unfiltered searches.” 

Senator John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota who is co-sponsoring the bill with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, explained their goal in an interview with the Wall Street Journal

“People are increasingly impatient with the lack of transparency. [Disclosing algorithms] is a way of giving consumers more control, consistent with the light touch approach I believe in.”

So if Google is pulling all kinds of strings with its algorithms, not only should you be able to see which strings they’re pulling and why, you also should have an option to cut the strings when you want. 

Why does this matter? 

Google claims its search engine is simply designed to tailor content to users’ needs but also to protect you from “policy-violating content.” While the company gives extensive reasons for what gets filtered out and why, much of their policy remains pretty vague.

In the TED Talk below, Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, explains how search engines often work to filter out information that could challenge or broaden your worldview. 

“Instead of a balanced information diet,” says Pariser, “we wind up with information junk food.” 

Google has yet to respond to the pending legislation, but it’s pretty simple to understand why a balanced information diet is better than information junk food. Just as junk food is all-too-often marketed as healthy by companies focused more on your money than your health, Google, too, has its financial interests and investments in mind first, in ways that go far beyond the internet. 

For example, Google’s health and life sciences division Verily has “strategic alliances” with the pharmaceutical companies Novartis, Sanofi, Otsuka and Pfizer, as well as GlaxoSmithKline.

While one stated goal of these partnerships is to improve healthcare, particularly for chronic conditions, another is marketing healthcare therapies. As GlaxoSmithKline’s Chief Digital Officer Marc Speichert told CNBC,

If you look at (search term) ‘how do I treat arthritis?’ we actually bring them to an arthritis site that isn’t very heavily branded as (anti-inflammatory) Voltaren, because we think that it’s a great destination where they’ll get lots of in-depth (information) in terms of answering that question. It’s just the first step of their path to purchase.

You may also want to know that Google had teams of engineers working on a search app that restricts content banned by Beijing. If they’re actually working publicly to get more into the censorship game, they may get even better at filtering content that goes against their bottom line here in the US, too.

Google office buildingIf you’re searching for healthcare information, do you really want the “first step” on your path to wellness controlled by drug companies, medical device makers, biotech firms, and their ilk? Probably not, especially when it comes to holistic, integrative approaches such as biological dentistry. 

Google is an amazingly powerful tool, but if the filter bubble is a concern for you, know that there are other ways to find what you’re looking for when it comes to healthcare and nutrition information. 

An article in Medium on how to avoid the filter bubble describes a few ways to get around that ever-challenging Google filter: 

You can use other engines like Bing, but if you would like to use Google results you can try a search engine like startpage.com. It is an Internet search engine that emphasizes protecting searchers’ privacy and avoiding the filter bubble of personalized search results. You can also use DuckDuckGo but you will mainly get Yahoo search results. Note: startpage.com delivers Google search results in privacy. It also offers a free proxy for visiting web pages anonymously, too.

Just like with the food you eat, you should know where the information you consume comes from – and the agendas of the companies providing it. If not, you might leave yourself at the mercy of firms whose only goal is their financial bottom line and not your health. 

When it comes to your health, don’t fall for the foolishness just because the wisdom is harder to find. That would definitely be the worst of times. . .  

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