TiVo Owners: Don’t Get Paranoid

Feb 23, 2004  •  Post A Comment

This is my last column for TelevisionWeek. (The sound you just heard was the popping of a champagne bottle in the office of Michael Powell, the Federal Communications Commission chairman.) I want to thank everyone at the magazine for their support and encouragement over the past 15 months. And in my final commentary I want to address the growing hysteria of privacy advocates when it comes to digital technology.
TiVo, the digital video recording service, recently issued a press release that revealed the viewing habits of its customers during the Super Bowl. The findings, which included the 10 most-watched commercials during the game, were based on a sampling of 20,000 users, and TiVo said no one’s personal data was made public.
However, just a few days after the release, you would think that TiVo CEO Mike Ramsay had sneaked in the back door of each DVR owner. Many journalists, myself included, were bombarded with e-mail calling for TiVo to stop releasing subscriber data.
The e-mail apparently paid off, leading to news articles with alarming headlines such as: “TiVo Users Beware: Big Brother’s Watching” (Chicago Sun-Times); “TiVo Watchers Uneasy” (CNET); “TV Might Be Watching You” (Toronto Star); and “TiVo’s Voyeur Power” (Motley Fool).
In the CNET article, one TiVo owner was quoted as saying the press release caused him to experience “the most severe form of anger … deriving from a perceived betrayal of trust.”
The “most severe form of anger”? One can only hope that this TiVo owner is not an employee of your local post office.
In a Lather
The reaction to the TiVo release is neither new nor surprising. TiVo has been frequently criticized in the past for releasing subscriber samplings and for its recent partnership with Nielsen to provide aggregate data to the TV industry. Privacy advocates and some consumers are concerned that digital technology makes it all too easy for TV services to collect information on what we watch and when we watch it. The mere suggestion that a company may release this data puts some people in a lather.
Though we need to closely monitor possible abuses, an individual’s privacy is not threatened when a company provides a sampling of data drawn from thousands of users. In fact, our understanding of new technologies-and how people use them-is enhanced by this information. For example, the TV industry is now trying to determine how the DVR’s commercial-skipping feature might impact the future of advertising. Subscriber data that sheds light on this issue is invaluable.
However, the privacy “hystericas” don’t see it this way. They believe they must oppose the release of all subscriber data to ensure that no one’s personal information will ever be revealed. Like many other special-interest groups, they live by the credo that if you give them an inch they will take a mile. In other words, permit TiVo to release subscriber samplings and they will try to release your personal data next.
This is the position of paranoids.
Phillip Swann is president and publisher of TVPredictions.com. He can be reached at Swann@TVPredictions.com.