TiVo to Share User Data with Google

Published January 3, 2010

The recent announcement TiVo has agreed to share its user data with Google to optimize ad service did not come as much of a surprise to those who study the evolving world of technology. But it set off alarm bells within some advocacy groups.

At issue is a variation of the “pay-per-click” method of measuring the penetration of advertising efforts. In late November, TiVo and Google announced a deal in which Google will record “anonymous second-by-second” data from people who use TiVo’s digital video recorders (DVRs).

This will allow advertisers to know how many ads a viewer is skipping and how many they are watching, even if they only watch a few seconds of an ad.

Seen As Natural Evolution
The rise of DVRs, which about a quarter of all TV watchers in America now use, has thrown a monkey wrench into the television advertising industry. Companies pay higher rates to higher-rated shows and networks, but that money could be wasted if many viewers are simply breezing past the ads.

TiVo says its partnership with Google’s TV Ads division is a natural evolution in the world of television.

“I absolutely believe TV needs better measurement so that advertisers can get a return on their investment,” said Todd Juenger, vice president and general manager of audience research and measurement at TiVo, in a prepared statement announcing the deal.

Privacy Concerns Aired
Although the data shared between Google and TiVo is anonymous—no individual user’s habits can be singled out or examined—there have already been cries about the deal constituting an invasion of privacy. Some worry about the volume of data being stored and speculat it could do damage if it fell into the wrong hands.

“There is not just danger in the government collecting the information,” said computer scientist and author Matthew Curtin. “Think about the matter of a civil subpoena. TiVo can say things like which programs and even which moments get the most attention via replay and so on.

“What if through subpoena TiVo had to release information about which TiVo units paused or rewound at any critical moment?” he asked.

‘Big Brother’ Worries Dismissed

This pairing of Google and TiVo does not necessarily create an Orwellian world where “Big Brother” is watching people’s every move, says Dean Donaldson, director of digital experience at Eyeblaster, a New York City-based digital advertising firm. Ad revenue pays for TV content, he notes.

“On one hand, consumers appreciate that advertising both subsidizes content viewing as well as provides valuable information in its own right,” Donaldson said.

As an example, Donaldson noted a person watching a TV program about France might well find a TV ad promoting a romantic trip to Paris is better suited and more preferable than having to sit through a feminine hygiene ad.

“The right ad at the right time can bring value as well as entertainment,” Donaldson said. “The problem arises when advertisers [metaphorically] dig through garbage bins around the back of our homes to try and find out about our habits instead of just knocking on the front door and asking us.”

Intent, Clarity Are Key
Donaldson said he believes the concern about such data-gathering generally centers on intent and informed consent. When a consumer subscribes to a service, he said, the privacy policy they agree to covers them for specific uses only. Any further changes require an explanation and agreement by the consumer.

“Most privacy policies don’t exactly help themselves because they don’t contain a summary of key points written in simple, easy-to-understand English,” he said. “Instead, companies bury more controversial aspects in legal jargon hidden within the depths of the mundane.

“Then once things are highlighted to the consumer it creates a complete mistrust in the companies concerned—feeling they have been compromised and their personal space has been violated,” he added.

Failing to protect customer information sufficiently can “provoke fairly violent reactions, even reaching ears of politicians,” he noted.

“For example, people were outraged when Phorm was found to have accessed consumer data in the United Kingdom without the consumers’ consent,” Donaldson said. “Now the European Union is pressuring the UK government for not tackling this correctly.”

Personal Responsibility Urged
Ultimately, Curtin says, privacy protection comes down to individuals making smart choices, both in the digital world and in everyday life.

“For instance, when a Web site, or even a grocery store, asks for your name, phone number, or zip code, you don’t have to give that out,” Curtin said. “Everyone cares about privacy, but so few people do anything to manage it. Everyone talks about it after the fact.

“People need to take responsibility for [their own] privacy,” he added. “You have to behave in a way that is consistent with what you want to have happen in the end.”

Privacy a ‘Continuum’
Curtin notes privacy means different things to different people and “is not a binary, yes-or-no condition, but a continuum.”

“One of the things that is interesting about privacy is that we think of it as certain types of information being confidential or not,” Curtin said. He noted someone’s HIV status could be their most private piece of information but an AIDS activist could consider that information important to share with the public.

 “It is difficult to say what is [properly] confidential,” Curtin said.

Celeste Altus ([email protected]) writes from Martinez, California.