Advertising on voice-activated devices

18 : 04 : 2017 Google Home : IoT : Privacy
Gilad Rosner Gilad Rosner

On 16 March SEO and mobile marketing expert Bryson Meunier uploaded a video to Twitter of him asking Google Home what his day looked like. After telling him the time, the weather and the outlook for his commute, Google Home said: ‘By the way, Disney’s live action Beauty and The Beast opens today. In this version of the story, Belle is the inventor instead of Maurice. That rings truer if you ask me. For some more movie fun, ask me something about Belle.’

Meunier called his tweet ‘New Beauty and the Beast promo is one way Google could monetise Home’, a mild enough comment. He also posted to Reddit, noting that he had not searched for anything that might trigger the ad, and that he wasn’t a fan of ads on Google Home. The Register took a slightly more prickly tone: ‘Spammy Google Home spouts audio ads without warning – now throw yours in the trash.’

Presenting you with ads is core to Google’s business model, and there is nothing in the terms of service that would prevent it from doing so with Home. But what makes this story even more strange is Google’s response to The Verge when it asked for more information: ‘This isn’t an ad. The beauty in the Assistant is that it invites our partners to be our guests and share their tales.’ Really? As The Verge and The Register point out, it sounds like an ad. There are even sound effects behind it. Google went a step further and attempted to clarify: ‘This wasn’t intended to be an ad. What is circulating online was a part of our My Day feature, where after providing helpful information about your day, we sometimes call out timely content. We’re continuing to experiment with new ways to surface unique content for users and we could have done better in this case.’

It’s not an ad. It’s helpful information. Uh huh. That hair you found in your food? That’s just delicious extra protein we thought you’d like.

There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with presenting ads in this way – or is there? Advertising support is a hallmark of modern entertainment and, since the dawn of the internet, of useful electronic services. And using Google’s services has always meant being exposed to ads alongside your searches or your email. So why the yuck factor? Why The Register’s shrill rejection? It comes down to context and expectation.

If you’re not a privacy practitioner or in the academic world you may not have heard of Helen Nissenbaum, but her work is very helpful in understanding why people feel that their privacy has been violated. She calls her theory contextual integrity, and in a nutshell it says that people experience privacy violations when informational norms are breached. These norms concern who sends and receives personal information, the type of information and the constraints governing the flow of data. For example, you don’t expect your doctor to hold your financial information just as you don’t expect your accountant to have your medical information. Much of this idea is based on the notion that people construct and live in more or less distinct informational spheres: work life, family life, in public, alone, and so on. My argument is that slyly slipping ads into interactions with a virtual assistant, especially in the home, violates our expectations:

  • Interactions with a virtual assistant are not searches, so the expectations of using Google search are not applicable
  • The ads breach the home boundary in an unsolicited way
  • Despite being subject to blanket terms of service, Meunier did not consent to being marketed to through his Google Home device

Admittedly, these are not privacy violations in the sense of Meunier giving information to Google, but contextual integrity is still useful here in understanding why, for example, ads inserted in this way turn people off like product placement in films. Google pitches its Assistant as a personal secretary… but do you expect your secretary to advertise to you and then take a fee for it? Scroll back up and read Google’s strong denial that the Beauty and the Beast promo was an ad: ‘After providing helpful information about your day, we sometimes call out timely content.’ I’d be more convinced by this argument if Google did not stand to gain by it, but it does. If my secretary told me I should check out a film, I would naturally assume that this was a friendly encouragement and take it as such. I would feel manipulated if he or she dropped it into normal conversation but was being paid to do so. Google’s disingenuous response shows that it is trying to normalise this manipulation.

The fact is, our expectations about voice interactions in the home may break down as virtual assistants start to proliferate. Google has successfully normalised software robots reading your email and then serving you ads based on its content. As a comparative thought exercise consider how you would feel if this were your regular post. Film producers have successfully normalised product placement. Our semiotic environment is awash with advertising, it’s the modern condition. ‘We’re continuing to experiment with new ways to surface unique content for users,’ says Google. ‘Unique content’ is doublespeak: you have a salesman living in your home.

Gilad Rosner is a privacy and information policy researcher, and founder of the non-profit-making Internet of Things Privacy Forum. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared here.