Personalised News – Implications for the democratic role of the digital media, user rights and public information policy
On the web, news media are profiling and targeting news users in order to serve users with news stories and advertisements that match their individual interests. For example, the New York Times has a section on its homepage titled “Recommended for you”. The section contains an automatically created selection of articles that are presumed to be of particular relevance for you. Elsewhere on its website, the publisher explains that “recommendations are based on the NYTimes content you have viewed recently. This information is available only to you.” This recommendation system is a form of news personalisation. Other news outlet, such as BBC News online in the UK, de Volkskrant in the Netherlands, or newer players like Facebook, are experimenting with the personalisation of news content as well.
News personalisation helps media companies to survive in a competitive digital environment and it may help individual media users to manage the information overload. But this development also raises questions among media professionals, media users, and researchers from all disciplines. During a discussion organised by the Guardian, an editor remarked the importance of transparency about news personalisation, even though another discussant questioned whether algorithms can be explained in a meaningful way. A reader commented that he or she saw personalisation as holding potential benefits for the users, but also found that the debate regarding user data, objectivity, and filter bubbles not properly firmed up yet. And on a panel that we organised during the Amsterdam Privacy Conference 2015, leading thinkers in this area, such as Neil Thurman, Neil Richards and Maurits Kaptein, highlighted the various trade-offs involved, between user orientation, the mission and editorial standards of the news-media and users’ rights and fundamental freedoms.
From a legal perspective, the development towards more and more personalised news raises questions about the implications for individual rights, the democratic role of the digital media, and information law and policy. Natali Helberger raises some of them in her inaugural speech “Media, users and algorithms: towards a new balance”: How does the personalisation of news affects media users’ trust in the integrity of editorial content, and their ability to distinguish editorial content from advertising? Is the collection of personal data relating to users’ reading behaviour lawful in all cases, and can readers still exercise their right to freely receive information and ideas? Can we envision a new public role for the media in which they actively serve news users with diverse and important content, to prevent users from just reading about entertainment, sports, and the weather?
In order to answer such questions, this research project combines legal research with empirical research by communication scientists and political theory. For one part of the project communication science postdocs research user attitudes towards news personalisation, as well as economic and ethical considerations on part of the media themselves. Informed by these findings, in another part of the project two legal PhD candidates investigate rules on editorial integrity, and users’ rights of freedom of expression and privacy in the context of personalised news. Finally, the projects formulates a new normative framework through which news personalisation can be assed, and explores to what extent government could stimulate new media strategies for personalised, public interest content.
The project team collaborates with partners in and outside of academia. For the empirical research we closely work with the Personalised Communication project, a joint initiative by the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR) and the Institute for Information Law. Next to that we work together with media companies to gather data and better understand the decisions that are made in the newsroom when personalising news.
LSE blog, 26 May 2016.
Facebook's use of human editors may bring comfort to some, but there are wider issues to do with editorial responsibility that need to be addressed.
Personalized recommendations provide new opportunities to engage with audiences and influence media choices. Should the public-service media use such algorithmic profiling and targeting to guide audiences and stimulate more diverse choices? And if they do, is this a brave new world we would like to live in? This article outlines new opportunities for the public-service media to fulfill their commitment to media diversity and highlights some of the ethical and normative considerations that will play a role. The article concludes with a call for a new body of “algorithmic media ethics.”
Interview in Het Parool van 2 januari 2015 over veranderende positie van de social media gebruiker.
Interview verschenen in het Financieel Dagblad van 29 november 2014.
Rede uitgesproken bij de aanvaarding van het ambt van hoogleraar Informatierecht, in het bijzonder met betrekking tot het gebruik van informatie, aan de Faculteit der Rechtsgeleerdheid van de Universiteit van Amsterdam op vrijdag 19 september 2014.
In the digital media environment user attention is scarce and competition for ‘eyeballs’ is fierce. Profiling and targeting users with customized news and advertisements is widely seen as a solution, and part of a larger trend to invest in what the New York Times has called ‘smart new strategies for growing our audience’. The shift from public information intermediary to personal information service creates new dynamics but also new imbalances in the relationship between the media and their users. In my inaugural speech I will state that to restore the balance, the media and regulators in Brussels and The Hague need to develop a vision of how to deal with issues such as media user privacy, editorial integrity and more generally ‘fair algorithmic media practices’."