edited by David Burke
160 pgs
ISBN: 1 899866 25 6
5.00 UK
$9.95 USA

Frequently Asked Questions


What is wrong with interactive television?

It has been designed from the beginning to gather information about people in their own homes. Using the TV's return path, and artificial intelligence, interactive TV providers do demographic, lifestyle, market segmentation and psychographic analysis of your viewing habits. Such analyses can be combined with externally available data to create an intimate picture of who you are and what motivates you.

Because interactive television is capable of showing something different on every single television, providers plan to use the data they gather to create messages that sell you things or change your thinking. The whole process of trying something, measuring its effect, and trying something else, until your behaviour changes, can be automated. This capability will be sold to companies, governments or just the highest bidder. You will never know exactly who has paid whom to have your computer do what to the way you live. Meanwhile, your computer will, over the years, learn everything it can about you.

This invasion of privacy in the home could be harmful to viewers over time, and will certainly be harmful to democracy.

Isn't interactive TV just like a supermarket loyalty card?

The mechanism is similar, but interactive television is many times more intrusive. The types of analysis that can be done with viewing data are more personal, and the types of manipulation possible are more varied and powerful. Nobody spends four hours a night in their supermarket, nor do they get all their news about the world there. No supermarket loyalty card can record everything you see and hear, nor can the entire shopping environment be changed to influence your individual behaviour.

Isn't interactive TV just like the internet?

The internet and interactive TV share certain functionality. But interactive TV makes some of the privacy problems of the internet worse, while introducing dangerous new ones.

The internet was not designed to identify a person using it, or even that person's computer. There are debates about the ways this might change, and there are methods of identification, such as cookie files, which the user can refuse to accept. But the internet provides more anonymity than interactive television, which not only knows your name, but all the other information you put on any service contract.

The internet is not owned by anyone. If you use a computer, the chances are that the computer belongs to you, and you have control over what the software does. You can install your own software to change how the internet works in your home. With interactive television, the entire network belongs to one company and you have little say over how it chooses to operate the box on your TV set. Software can change without your knowing anything about it.

The internet and TV are used differently. The first is used briefly, for research. The second is used four hours every day by people who are letting their minds unwind. It is a very different environment, one much better for gathering information and manipulating users.

What can anyone really tell about me from my TV viewing?

Television providers themselves are excited about the detailed information they can gather from people over years of viewing. Not only will people answer questions about themselves on the screen, but everything they do can be analysed to create a profile of who they are.

The programmes you watch and the ads you are willing to sit through reveal your interests. Your behaviour in front of the screen, taken as a whole, can be analysed with artificial intelligence to link you to other, similar people. If someone who monitors your viewing knows a great deal about a certain group of similar people, and is then able to say you are one of that group, then they suddenly know a great deal about you. Marketing and database consultancy firms are now gearing up to do just that.

Advertisers, public relations firms and anyone else who pays to use your viewing data can begin to understand where you get your information, how you respond to new events, what motivates you to do things and what kinds of things you want out of life. They will also begin to understand your weaknesses and anxieties. When linked to other, externally available, data, such profiles will allow them to create programming that programs you.

Doesn't the law protect against this kind of thing?

Some countries, such as members of Europe, are protected by data protection laws. Other countries, such as the United States, are not. But even countries that have data protection laws have not come to grips with this new technology. Many of the decisions about what regulations shall be in force and how they shall be applied are being taken right now. The providers of interactive television hope to make the observation of people in their own homes seem normal and publicly acceptable, while they have the chance.

Why is this a problem if the TV is just selling me things I might want?

Even if that was all the TV did, there would be a problem. Privacy in the home is a 600 year old concept that is fundamental to democracy. With the advent of computers that can monitor and respond to the behaviour of millions of people all at once, such a concept becomes even more important.

But it is already clear that interactive TV will be used for more than just selling. Just as politicians and ideas can be "sold", so interactive TV could allow the entire intellectual life of a country to be monitored and controlled from a single keyboard.

Perhaps most importantly, do you want a machine in your living room that watches you, learns about you and tries to change your behaviour, when you have no control over how it is programmed? When you don't finally know who does? Why? What for? Some email? A little home shopping? You can get that anywhere.

My TV provider has a privacy policy, or belongs to a privacy campaign. Am I protected?

Maybe, maybe not. Such policy statements and industry led campaigns may be designed to make viewers feel secure, while allowing TV providers to continue monitoring. For instance, a promise not to make personal details available to third parties does not stop a company using those details itself on a third party's behalf. Keep in mind that most companies providing interactive TV have been told it is a good investment precisely because of the way viewer data can be used for marketing purposes.

My TV provider says the interactive service could not work without collecting information

Not true. It is perfectly possible to create interactive television that does not collect information about individual households, or collects it in a way that they remain anonymous. And it is certainly possible not to sell the use of that information to third parties.

I don't own a computer, but want to join the 'digital revolution'

There is no one digital revolution, but many on offer. Computers are getting cheaper and easier to use all the time and the internet offers a much wider variety of information and services than interactive TV. If you don't like computers, personal organisers and mobile phones are beginning to offer email. As time goes on, there will be many other ways for you to use digital services. Interactive TV, on the other hand, offers a second rate service with some very dangerous strings attached. Why not give it a miss and find something better?

Aren't you just being old fashioned, or scared of technology?

Most of the people who care about this issue work in computers. It is precisely because we are comfortable with technology, and know what it can do, that we are calling this boycott. The Interactive TV now on offer is not new or revolutionary. It is just television providers hoping to refashion the internet as something they control, and can use to manipulate viewers. What could be more old fashioned than that?