One of the most common complaints about Netflix is that as much content as it has, certainly more than anyone could actually watch, there are a lot of great movies and TV shows that it doesn’t feature. But Anne Helen Petersen argues in Slate that because the Netflix, Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX) interface is so good, many of her students allow Netflix, Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX) licensing to partially determine what they watch.

Netflix

All these shows are available on Netflix

“When I ask students what they’re watching, the answers are varied: Friday Night Lights, Scandal, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League, Breaking Bad, Luther, Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Arrested Development, The Walking Dead, Pretty Little Liars, Weeds, Freaks & Geeks, The L Word, Twin Peaks, Archer, Louie, Portlandia. What all these shows have in common, however, is that they’re all available on Netflix, Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX),” writes Petersen.

“Things that they haven’t watched? The Wire. Deadwood. Veronica Mars, Rome, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos. Even Sex in the City.”

Petersen is mostly interested in the impact this might have on popular culture, but it also raises a broader point about how tech companies control the flow of information. Most people outside the IT world assume that a Google search brings them the most relevant results (or at least tries to), when the reality is that websites have long been given preferential treatment for strategic reasons. Listing YouTube over other video providers, for example, has gotten the company into legal trouble for anti-competitive behavior.

But for most users this is all happening behind the scenes. While most people understand that The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian have different editorial biases that will cause them to report different stories, people are less aware that the modern information gatekeepers – search engines, content providers, app stores – aren’t neutral either. Their biases tend to be financial instead of political, but there’s no reason that can’t change in the future. It’s certainly possible to get around these gatekeepers, both legally and illegally, but most people can’t be bothered with the inconvenience.

Apple’s decision not to allow anything pornographic on iTunes

There’s already one clear example of this happening – Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)’s decision not to allow anything pornographic on iTunes. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but it’s worth remembering how much control seemingly neutral content providers have on what we see and hear.