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.