Apparently Burger King ran an ad that attempted to trigger Google Home by having a Burger King employee say “OK, Google: What is the Whopper burger?” First the ad was up, then it was down, now BK says that it might come back. The ad was supposed to trigger Google Home to read the first line of the Wikipedia definition of the Whopper. Annoyed Google customers promptly changed the line to say the burger contained cyanide. A handle that looked suspiciously like a BK executive then changed it back into effusive praise. As of this moment, the Wikipedia front page reads much more neutrally. So apparently it’s been reverted, or the BK sock puppet isn’t at work yet.
We don’t have a good regulatory strategy for this one. The only one that comes immediately to mind is some sort of creative deployment of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which essentially criminalizes accessing a computer beyond authorization. But there are reasons to be very concerned with this strategy. The CFAA was used in an ill-conceived federal cyberbullying case, where the problem was not that the bullying, which resulted in a teenager committing suicide, was not bad (cyberbullying is epidemic, usually misogynistic and generally awful), but that the CFAA interpretation advocated in the case would have legitimated the idea that using a fake name or email address online was a federal crime. That said, the CFAA might put a stop to this sort of saturation of all of life with advertising. You probably did not authorize Burger King to access your home system, although I wouldn’t be surprised if terms of service didn’t start taking that sort of complaint off the table very soon. In any case, don’t expect the current government to help: while the Republicans were involved in their circular firing squad trying to destroy the ACA, they did pass legislation blocking impending regulations protecting the privacy of ISP-collected data.
The weakness of the strategy in the preceding paragraph, however, suggests that we do need further protection against such “innovative” and “exciting” marketing. Insofar as capital’s complete subsumption now includes not just constant advertising at home, online, and so on, but the effort by advertisers to enlist smart devices into complicity with their advertising, it’s time to realize (again) that the expansion of the Internet of Things into our homes and even nature promises to provide a lot of smooth sailing for corporate surveillance.
This particular case is also disturbing because it’s a good example of what I’ve been trying to theorize as the dispossession of preferences by big data (also here). In other words, I’ve been working on a Marxian argument to the effect that big data participates in capitalist accumulation by forcibly extracting individuals’ preferences from them. This matters because, on Hayekian grounds, markets are fantastic information processors insofar as individuals reveal their preferences through market decisions. The ability to keep preferences private (and the general failure of market actions as a reliable signal of preferences) is something that corporations don’t like, because it interferes with the ability to know consumers. So privacy invasions become important to corporate interests, and big data provides the ability to infer what consumers really want without their having said so. It thus reduces the market power of consumers and enables corporations to keep any surplus generated by accurate pricing. In the current case, consider what happens: the TV blurts out a question about the Whopper, which Google Home hears. At that moment, from Google’s point of view, the consumer has searched for the Whopper. In other words, the consumer has indicated an interest in the product. This, in turn, increases the chances that the consumer will see further advertising for the product online. In other words, don’t want to share your preferences? That’s ok; we’ll give them to you.