Vizio Admits Modern TV Sets Are Cheaper Because They're Spying On You

from the watching-you-watching-me dept

If you've shopped for a TV recently, you may have noticed that it's largely impossible to just buy a "dumb" TV set without all of the "smart" internals. More specifically, most TV vendors don't want to sell you a bare-bones set because they want you to use their streaming services. Even more specifically, they want you to buy their sets with their specific streaming functionality because they want to spy on you. Poorly.

That's always been fairly obvious to most folks, but it was nice to see Vizio CTO Bill Baxter acknowledge that the reason you pay a discount is because your viewing habits are being collected and sold to the highest bidder:

"Q. One sort of Verge-nerd meme that I hear in our comments or on Twitter is “I just want a dumb TV. I just want a panel with no smarts and I’ll figure it out on my own.” But it sounds like that lifetime monetization problem would prevent you from just making a dumb panel that you can sell to somebody.

A. Well, it wouldn’t prevent us, to be honest with you. What it would do is, we’d collect a little bit more margin at retail to offset it. Again, it may be an aspirational goal to not have high margins on our TV business because I can make it up downstream. On the other hand, I’m actually aggregating that monetization across a large number of users, some of which opt out.

It’s a blended revenue model where, in the end, Vizio succeeds, but you know, it’s not wholly dependent on things like data collection.

The problem is that this trade off isn't really providing value to the end user, in large part thanks to the TV sector's terrible security and privacy practices. For one, navigating the TV sector's historically terrible GUIs to actually find and opt out of this data collection is often a nightmare. Usually opting out is first intentionally named something nebulous, then buried deep in a sea of terribly-designed menus. And even then, opting out can often result in you losing access to some core set features you might actually use. That's only a good deal if you enjoy annoyance.

Then there's the fact that the TV sector routinely does an absolutely terrible job at the security and privacy practices needed to protect this data. We've seen vendors like Samsung get busted hoovering up and collecting living room conversations, then shoveling this data off to a nebulous assortment of third-party clients. Numerous set vendors have similarly been busted collecting this data then transmitting it to the cloud without adequate encryption. Vizio itself just struck a $2.2 million settlement with the FTC for secretly tracking and selling the usage habits of around sixteen million Vizio owners for around three years.

So yes you're maybe paying a bit less up front for a cheaper set, but you're paying for the deal out the other side of the equation in a way that's not even entirely calculable. Even then, higher-end TV set vendors do this same thing, kind of deflating the claim that this is only being done by necessity among lower-end vendors trapped by tight margins. In reality, the same disregard for privacy and security that has infected the internet of broken things space is on proud display in the TV business, resulting in hardware that's easily exploitable by everyone from run of the mill hackers to intelligence services. Is that a bargain, really?

With so many streaming hardware platforms to choose from (game consoles, your phone, home-built PCs, Roku, Apple TV, etc.), many users just want a dumb TV with ample HDMI ports that simply does one job, really well. Instead, like so many sectors (telecom comes quickly to mind) the priority appears to be focused on treating user data like a harvestable resource, with security, privacy, and transparency a very distant afterthought.

Filed Under: bill baxter, data, privacy, smart tvs
Companies: vizio


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Jan 2019 @ 8:57am

    Re: Re:

    What's to stop it from connecting to your neighbor's unsecured WiFi, or G3/4?

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