Privacy Concerns a Dark Shadow over the ATSC 3.0 TV Standard

The FCC’s refusal to adopt a protective stance for consumers will unfortunately allow broadcast TV to increase revenue with scrupulous behavior

I wrote about the newly FCC-approved ATSC 3.0 broadcasting standard a few weeks ago. More commonly known as Next Gen TV, the new standard is the first major upgrade in broadcast TV since the transition to digital signals (DTV) in 2009. Next Gen TV is an IP-based system which can carry internet content alongside the over-the-air broadcast signal. It’s considered a game changer because it’s the first time that broadcasters have the advantages of broadband.

The good news for consumers is that Next Gen TV signals will be stronger and will transmit over greater distances and deeper into buildings, delivering stronger signal reception to cord-cutters. The new features in Next Generation TV include video-on-demand and advanced emergency alerts as well as 4K video and high dynamic range (HDR) content for broadcast TV. Cord cutters eager to have access to the enhanced picture and audio will line up to buy new TVs enabled with the technology when available in 2019.

The dark side of the equation is that the new technology also supports a new generation of spyware. The events of early 2018 like the Facebook scandal and the ethics questions surrounding Sinclair forcing their anchors to read statements demonstrated that current opt-out agreements and confusing privacy policies aren’t properly addressing consumer privacy concerns. Rather than being resigned about the loss of privacy in the new age of technology, it’s important for consumers to understand these changes will further erode privacy in the home.

The new format gives broadcasters an unprecedented ability to understand who is watching the programming, and from where. Broadcasters are embracing Next Gen TV to collect data about your viewing habits and deliver targeted personalized advertising, much like Google and Facebook.

Your 4K broadcast comes with a side of viewer tracking and personalized ads

The ATSC 3.0 standard brings increased consumer safety alerts and enhanced viewer experience, but the FCC didn’t balance the scale with any meaningful consumer privacy safeguards. The FCC approval allows stations to begin using the standard on a voluntary basis, but not all stations are likely to adopt Next Gen TV immediately because of the significant costs associated with the upgrade.

Next Gen TV includes the ability to run targeted advertising and to monitor television programming far more directly than current broadcast technology. You’ll be sending your broadcaster an itemized list of everything you watch, how long you watch it, and whether you finished the program. By implementing new broadcast standards, local television stations get access to the latest in advertising technology, and the lucrative ad model is estimated to pay for the technology upgrades required by the broadcasters within three years.

Next Gen standards don’t have a privacy policy

The FCC-approved technical standard covered one-way transmissions from broadcasters to viewers. The ATSC 3.0 format doesn’t define a privacy policy, so it’s up to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to implement privacy guidelines for broadcasters to receive data about viewers.

So according to current rules, broadcasters can only track behavior when a viewer is watching their channel. But there is no reason for consumers to believe that the FTC will rule in favor of privacy based on the two notable recent votes in favor of selling consumer internet data and against net neutrality.

The newly published standard allows each TV station to issue a unique privacy statement, which makes it confusing for consumers to juggle. History has proved that, given a chance, broadcasters will aggressively harvest and monetize viewer data.

Future scenarios if FTC doesn’t act to protect privacy

If the FTC declines to push further privacy controls, the new standards will allow each channel to track your behavior while watching. But content aggregation allows a company that owns multiple stations in one market to gather and sell information about more of your viewing behavior.
Privacy advocates are concerned that the increase in highly precise digital tracking is not in the consumers’ best interests. It concentrates power among a small handful of corporations. For example, Sinclair Broadcasting Group, majority-owned privately by the Smith Family, owns and operates more than 190 local TV stations which reach an estimated 72% percent of American households on at least one of the broadcast television stations.

There’s nothing stopping the company from tracking your activity on multiple Sinclair-controlled channels and combining that information. While Sinclair’s media domination makes it the most obvious winner in this model, any media parent company that owns more than one station in a broadcast market would benefit from selling compiled viewer data.

Policy changes by federal regulators already erode privacy

The FCC recently eliminated regulations that limited how many media outlets can belong to a single company in a local market and another requiring broadcast stations to operate a physical studio in the market where they are licensed. These changes leave open the possibility that a company could own both a TV station and newspaper in the same market, or merge stations in the same market.

Imagine a broadcast service that offers free or exclusive access to content in exchange for watching specific programming, or hitting viewing targets while enabling user settings that allow additional tracking. If cost continues to be the number one reason for cord-cutting, then broadcast stations could trade access to personal data for content.

Consumer privacy has eroded since targeted advertising was initiated and privacy standards are expected to continue to decline as the television industry becomes more consolidated. A reduction in the diversity of programming and news coverage could allow one corporation to control the flow of information to the majority of households.

Like living in a dystopian novel

Reviewing the information available to broadcasters brought to mind Ray Bradbury‘s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. In the 1953 classic, consumers’ minds were numbed from wall-sized TVs with such engaging features as personalized advertisements for the homeowner by name and broadcasts which included scripts so the viewers could participate in the drama with their friends. The on-screen characters were modified to call the viewer by name in shows and advertisements. The personalization came with the tradeoff of the broadcaster knowing every detail of what happened in the house.

The FCC’s refusal to adopt a protective stance for consumers leads me to believe that tracking people’s behavior and monetizing their choices will likely be implemented for broadcast TV. In fact, the entire approval process seems aimed at helping broadcasters use viewing and content tracking to increase revenues.

Megan Southard


Article Author

Megan Southard is a writer, mom, technology enthusiast, and movie junkie. She dreads the day her kids have to explain gadgets to her and is old enough to say, "I was the remote for our TV growing up.

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