Yesterday we learned that TV manufacturer Vizio will pay an FTC-imposed $2.2MM fine and delete the consumer usage tracking data they have illegally collected. Without soliciting consumers’ permission first, Vizio TVs would recognize the content being viewed by a consumer, keep track of viewing preferences, enrich this viewing data using IP address lookups to determine probable identity and demographics, and then sell this data to third-party advertisers to target consumers away from their TV. Gross.
It’s interesting to explore about why this feels gross in contrast to the data collection and tracking of most modern new media companies. Google, Facebook, and their comparable companies collect significantly more data points across many more channels. They can identify you more specifically, and they do sell this data to third parties when they allow third-parties to target you with advertising using their data both on and off their properties. Google and Facebook don’t explicitly ask your permission upfront (except perhaps in an EULA, but who reads those), and while you can customize the level of tracking and data collection in advanced preferences, I’ll bet a shiny nickel no more than 0.1% of their collective audience has found or used those settings.
Yet, to the majority of consumers, these new media companies are not gross. Or, if they are gross in their behavior, to the majority of users, they are tolerably gross and don’t cross some line that Vizio clearly crossed. One article I read pointed out that Vizio didn’t ask permission upfront and by contrast, Samsung has similar tracking technology, but it’s an opt-in feature that asks permission. I think this explanation is a head fake.
Instead, I think the big deal is that Vizio provided no value to the end consumer in exchange for their tracking. Google tracking my YouTube viewing preferences give them valuable ammo for targeted advertising, but it’s also valuable to me by how they customize the product experience to my preferences. I like to do yoga on YouTube and some of the best yoga videos I have found came from the suggested videos that appear on the YouTube home screen on my TV. Without Google’s tracking, I would have a worse product experience, so the tracking feels justified
The earliest well-done description of the implicit trade of improved product experience in exchange for tracking data I can recall was penned by Matt Blumberg back in 2004, which he called The New Media Deal. 13 years later Matt’s post has aged well and is relevant in describing why Vizio’s tracking feels gross despite the actual tracking implementation isn’t all that sophisticated compared to most new media companies’ tracking.