There is such a thing as a user-interface that’s so bad the government needs to put a stop to it. And Vizio has a $2.2 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission and New Jersey to prove it.
The electronics giant paid up to settle allegations that it installed software on its smart TVs to track what people watched without getting their consent and with only vague disclosure. The FTC alleged that was an “unfair and deceptive” practice, one of the offenses the agency is charged with stopping.
In doing that, the commission has provided an excellent lesson in how one of the tech industry’s worst habits — what’s called a “dark pattern” interface — can go wrong.
Tricks of the trade
London-based user-experience designer Harry Brignull first suggested that we use the term dark pattern in 2010 for designs “crafted with great attention to detail, and a solid understanding of human psychology,” to steer people away from a sensible choice.
That captures the experience described in the joint complaint by the FTC, New Jersey Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino and Steven C. Lee, director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs.
After that, Vizio’s software would transmit a sample of what was on the screen every second to the company’s servers, according to the complaint. The content was then matched with a database of TV content and indexed against viewers’ IP addresses to let other companies to see, for example, who visited their website after seeing the company’s ad on TV. Companies could also mash up those IP addresses with third-party demographic data on household age, sex, education and income, among other details.
One of the few data points left out of this exercise: viewers’ names. But when you know this much about somebody, the only moniker necessary is “target.”
Undocumented data migration
People who bothered to check a Vizio TV’s settings menu, the complaint says, saw only this bland description of Smart Interactivity: “Enables program offers and suggestions.”
The complaint alleges that last March, after the investigation had begun, Vizio sent a second onscreen notification disclosing its vacuuming of viewership data — which vanished after 30 seconds absent interaction with it.
Vizio manuals were equally uninformative, and as of Thursday morning the company’s Smart Interactivity support webpage barely got beyond this airbrushed description of potential benefits: “bonus features related to the content you are viewing, the ability to vote in polls, or advertisements that match your interests.”
Vizio representatives did not say if viewers had received any of those rewards.
By Thursday afternoon, that page had been rewritten to lead off with a lengthy recap of the data Vizio reels in. It also explains how to disable the feature: Press the remote’s “Menu” button, select the “System” category, choose “Reset & Admin,” select “Smart Interactivity,” and press the right-arrow button to disable that.