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12-12-01: THIS PAGE WAS CAREFULLY RESEARCHED AND CONTAINS ACCURATE INFORMATION BUT ONLY AS OF late 1999. IT IS BEING BEING KEPT UP FOR HISTORICAL PURPOSES ONLY.
Thanks to all who wrote in support of this effort. Sorry I could not personally answer all your mail. Just remember that all the pressure subscribers placed on WebTV has paid off and in mid-2000 WebTV hired a full-time person to handle subscriber issues and complaints. Since then some of the concerns expressed here have been rectified. But there is still much work to be done.
Since this site was started it has received nearly 60,000 hits and helped visitors with information they could not get elsewhere. It is essential that you do stay informed, and stand up for your rights, and support those who help this effort. Please consider the valuable service Net4TV has provided over the years.

ulTRAX


BEFORE YOU BUY A WEBTV...

This Site has been created by long-time WebTV subscribers. We are well aware of both WebTV's strengths and shortcomings. Since there is no shortage of pro-WTV advertisements... this is a critique of both WEBTV as a company as well as its products. Before you purchase a WebTV you might want to consider some of what we have learned.... if you already own a WebTV you may consider supporting our call for a better WebTV. (a special note to WebTV: this site intends to present accurate, well researched information as well as informed personal opinion. Should you feel any information is in error please submit your concerns for evaluation to the address below.)

INDEX:
What is WebTV?
How Does it Work?
Too Good To Be True?
What About Those Upgrades?
What WTV Says to Advertisers
What About Privacy?
Terms of Service: What's Wrong With This Picture?
Who Really Owns Your Private Files?
How Safe Are You & Your Private Files?
Unfair and Arbitrary Policies
Message Board (inactive)

WEBTVers... JOIN THE REVOLT!


Mail Address: WebTVexposed@apexmail.com


WHAT IS WEBTV?:
WebTV is an inexpensive internet terminal that uses an ordinary TV for its monitor. Its layout and use is very intuitive and perfect for someone who may be intimidated by PCs but would appreciate access to the internet. WebTV offers Chat, E-mail, Usenet bulletin boards, streaming audio and more. For a complete list of features please visit WebTV' s Homepage.

WebTV now offers three new models, the Plus, the Classic2, and the Dishplayer... a satellite version of the Plus. The Plus boxes integrate TV with the Web. WebTV also supports two older boxes which are still in stores. Reports are that WebTV provides hidden subsidies to hardware manufactures to keep the price of the boxes artificially low. In doing so it makes up the difference in subscription fees and in advertising. To get the best ad rates WebTV resorts to some of the most intrusive privacy -invading Tracking on-line. Some have suggested that in attempting to conceal this aspect of the business WebTV must gloss over the implications of seeking these preimium rates and plays down or conceals the true extent of their Tracking.


HOW DOES WEBTV WORK?:
While WebTV can access the internet, it is NOT a PC and can not use PC software. It is akin to a "network computer" in that it must rely entirely on the WebTV Network for proprietary its service. If you do not like WebTV service you can not connect your box to a different service!

BEFORE YOU BUY A WEBTV:
The following is a review of the shortcomings of WebTV. This is information WebTV will never tell you nor will you find it in magazines which are dependent on advertising. Yet, these are important considerations that should go into your purchase decision.


WHAT ABOUT THOSE FREE UPGRADES?
While WebTV does offer subscribers free upgrades, WTV's proprietary platform makes these upgrades very slow in coming. For example in the past year there have been 3 minor upgrades: one in November '98 and April '99 plus a "bug fix" Client upgrade to deal with some longstanding defects in previous software. This Client upgrade included a spell check feature originally scheduled to be released last November. It was simply too buggy.

WTV's internal limited memory and proprietary operating system also mean many plug ins/formats generally taken for granted by PC users are not and may never be available. For instance, WebTV has used RealAudio3 since 1997. Despite several generations of improvement, WebTV has STILL not upgraded this feature! Some observers feel WebTV is a mere pawn in Microsoft's war to control Web standards... engendering anger and suspicion with many subscribers that WebTV is providing an inferior browser... while putting development resources into money making ventures. For more information please visit here. WebTV is also way behind innovations the rest of the web takes for granted, such as Java and streaming video. For information on WTV's delays in introducing Java, please go here.

Another factor complicating software development is the number of various set-top boxes WebTV makes. Currently there are five models to design for.

Since upgrades take so long to develop and test, it's not just a long wait between upgrades, it can also take an interminable amount of time to fix software Bugs. If there is a Bug in PC software, a free fix might be available online within days or weeks. But, with WebTV this process can take nearly a year! For example, for nearly 11 months many users had a Bug that froze all the operations of their box. This Bug was documented in Beta Testing in May '98 yet WebTV released the Summer '98 upgrade without fixing it! Even though this, and other Bugs, have been a source of infuriating frustration to some Subscribers, WTV has never offered those plagued with such Bugs even a token good-faith rebate on their service.


WHAT WTV SAYS TO ADVERTISERS
The language WTV uses in this excerpt from its advertising page is truly Orwellian. WTV brags to potential advertisers that it can:

Build a relationship between your brand and WebTV users from the moment they sign onto the WebTV service. Follow them around during their Internet and TV viewing session. WebTV Networks will help you deliver your message more accurately than ever before.

How WTV accomplishes this feat is outlined below.


WEBTV AND PRIVACY: FAILING GRADES
The web offers incredible opportunities to gather private information on us. This information is often merged with other databases. Maybe most disturbing is the special position Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as WTV have. They not only know where we surf, but who we are.

Most ISPs admit to some tracking subscriber web surfing so subscribers may be "profiled" and targeted for ads. The reason is simple.... advertisers are willing to pay more for ads that are highly "targeted". The more intrusive the tracking is, the more valuable it is to advertisers.

But, this means ISPs have a conflict of interest between protecting subscriber privacy and meeting the demands of advertisers.

It is in the nature of the WebTV service, with its total dependence on the WTV Network, which allows WebTV to offer its advertisers an unparalleled ability to peer into our most private lives and track everything we do.

WebTV has refused to ever provide a specific list of all the personal data they track. This information has come mainly from Hackers who have discovered Tracking Logs no one suspected existed.

Currently it has been documented that WTV Tracks or Logs the following:

  • Every User's web surfing
  • Where Users use their credit cards and,
  • How they go to that site (referrer)
  • WTV knows what material you print be it a picture or stock quotes
  • Print Log includes your printer model and
  • The number of pages you print!
  • What ads you click on.
  • What Chat service you use.
  • What Chat rooms you use.
  • How many people were in the room when you entered!! Whether Chat conversation Logs are kept by the Chat Service is not known.

    But tracking our on-line activities is just the start. The WebTV Plus and DishPlayer units, which offer interactive TV (iTV) also have the ability to monitor and track your entire family's off-line TV viewing habits!! This updated list includes:

  • What show each User has watched,
  • What each User has recorded
  • What TV listings each User has read
  • What iTV web page each User has visited.
  • What TV Programs were in your Recent box
  • What TV Channels were in your TV PLanner
  • What program categories you search for: sports, news, etc
  • What TV Programs came up in the Searches
  • What adjustments you made to your picture... brightness, contrast, sharpness, etc.
  • What instruction pages you read.
  • What WTV off-line Games each User has played... With DOOM it even logs your score after each level!
  • Time spent on games.

    Each night the Plus and Dishplayer boxes dial the service in order to upload this private information. One WEBTV privacy advocate aptly dubbed these Plus units a "Trojan Horse stealing information from our homes in the dead of night." Click here for an example of what information can be included on a TV LOG.

    Why does WTV collect this TV data? Because in February '98 Microsoft made an arrangement with Nielsen TV Ratings. It has long been the goal of these ratings services to quietly study and record our private behavior hoping to bypass our conscious attempts to protect our privacy.

    In its Privacy Statement WebTV predictably stresses the information they have a legitimate need to collect. In fact they seem to want to bore you with self-evident details... that they need to store your mail and your name for billing purposes, for example. But what is of more concern is what private data WTV has NO legitimate need for yet collects anyway. As said before, to date WTV has never fully stated all the private information it Tracks and Logs! It has been hackers who have exposed much of what WebTV is doing.

    WebTV claims not to pass on our true identities to advertisers is NO guarantee our information is safe. The simple fact is WebTV may keep this information linked to our real names. What private info WebTV keeps and for how long, they refuse to disclose. This failure to be forthcoming with its subscribers is extremely troubling. Not only is it potentially subject to abuse within WTV, but there is a growing trend to subpoena ISP records in civil cases. Unwitting Subscribers may have official WebTV Logs used against them in court never knowing that the information had ever been collected! Even if legal considerations are not a concern... who can be comfortable knowing the WebTV service is akin to Big Brother... watching everything they do? Furthermore... since WebTV reserves the right to change its TOS at its sole discretion... who knows what WebTV will do with our private data tomorrow?


    WEBTV's TOS: GOOD FAITH & INFORMED CONSENT?
    In an October '98 magazine article former WebTV president Steve Perlman was quoted:
    "It not only makes ethical sense to protect peoples' privacy, in the end it makes economic sense. Because if they feel they're being watched or don't feel, they're not going to use your service,"

    That is a curious statement from the president of a ISP who must have known WebTV had in reality created an Orwellian Tracking system which essentially turned its Subscriber base into Lab Rats. Be that as it may... let's examine WebTV's actual corporate behavior for signs of these "ethical concerns".

    Leaving aside for a moment things like the Print, Credit Card, Chat Logs etc, one might think that before any company began such a massive invasion of a family's private TV viewing habits, as WebTV did, their "ethical concerns" would have had made it imperative to fully inform its subscribers.... or offer an "opt-in" option.

    It might rightly be taken as a sign of WebTV's true concern for ethics and its contempt that WTV never formally informs its subscribers in writing of any changes in its Terms of service (TOS)! WebTV's policy places the entire responsibilityon the subscriber to constantly read the TOS for minute changes in wording. A self-serving clause in their policies states our continued use of the WebTV service implicitly signals our agreement with those changes in the TOS.... even if in reality we are totally unaware any changes have been made! In this manner WebTV can in the future essentially give itself permission to do whatever it wants with our private data yet can claim there was "consent" on the part of subscribers. Their continued use of the service indicates they must not mind. Remember there are no Federal laws protecting our private data! This policy is as scandalous as it is transparently self-serving and must change. WebTV knows (since it can track our activities) the vast majority of the subscribers never review the TOS or the Privacy Policy... or have time to decode the legalese looking for a few words that could signal a big change in WebTV's policies. If WebTV wished its subscribers to be fully informed it would take measures to insure that happened! It is a sign of their actual disdain for business ethics that they do not wish us informed. Here's a commentary on WebTV's ever-changing TOS. Even a review of WebTV's official press releases will also not describe WebTV's TV Tracking. Instead, subscribers had to learn about the TV Tracking in the press.... and even this article did not explore the depth of WebTV's intrusion into our private lives. WebTV's current TOS can be found here.


    PRIVACY: FOX GUARDING THE CHICKENS?:
    Under growing criticism of widespread violations of personal privacy on the web, some industry groups were set to self-police member sites hoping to fend off Federal pro-privacy legislation. One of these groups is called Trust-e and WebTV is a member. The Trust-e web page is a glorious tribute paying lip service to personal privacy. Yet, Trust-e's certification does NOT apply to WebTV's internet services... only its corporate website!

    As was stated earlier, on-line services, such as WebTV have a conflict of interest in that they get revenues from advertisers who are willing to pay a higher rate for individually "targeted" ads. But, in order to profile a subscriber WebTV must track and categorize what most would consider their personal web habits. It seems that our only protection on how WebTV uses private information is to be found in their Privacy Policy and their TOS. This is a case of the proverbial fox guarding the chickens. WebTV's Privacy Policy can be found here.


    WEBTV's EVER-CHANGING TOS & PRIVACY POLICY:
    Every Internet Service Provider (ISP) has a written Terms of Service (TOS) agreement with its Subscribers. With WebTV you can not even see it until you have purchased the box and attempt to register.

    In spring of 98 WTV created its Privacy Policy. If one reads it (or the TOS) one will never get any idea of the true extent and depth of WTV's tracking. It is glossed over with vague assurances that no personally identifiable information is ever sold. Despite repeated letters, WTV has not specifically detailed what information they track and why. Together with the vague language of the TOS this would seem to indicate that WebTV is not interested in gaining either "informed consent" or the trust of its subscribers.

    WebTV claims it does not sell personally identifiable information to advertisers. But the TOS also states that they can not be held liable for the misuse of our information by either itself or its partners. Since WebTV is under pressure to provide more detailed information to advertisers and since WebTV reserves for itself the right to change the TOS at any time, this is hardly a comforting situation.

    COOKIES: Another method our privacy is invaded is by the abuse of Cookies on the web. While PC users have the ability to refuse and edit Cookies to protect their privacy... WebTV does not even offer access to our Cookie list... let alone the ability to delete Cookies. In fact WebTV has long maintained there was no way for us to delete Cookies. This was untrue. That simple code was found proving WebTV at any time could have offered that option.


    WHO REALLY OWNS YOUR PRIVATE FILES?
    This is probably WebTV's most troubling shortcoming. WebTV stresses family-friendly features, such as e-mail, the Plus's ability to send video snapshots and sound clips. They were once even considering having short video-clips in mail. But, since the WTV box has little room for storage, ALL these personal files, e-mail, address lists, bookmarks, and family mementos are kept on the WebTV servers! All of this information can be deeply personal and have taken years to collect yet Subscribers have no control over its storage. Should you run into difficulties with WebTV... say, your box breaks and you do not wish to continue with WTV service, an inability to pay, or because someone in your family does something causing your account to be terminated... you may permanently be denied access to your personal files! WNI makes no provisions to allow someone to salvage what amounts to their personal property! Whether WTV keeps these files or for how long is also unknown. Just losing an e-mail account can have implications no one imagined. For example, if you forget a password to a site, they may only be willing to send it to the mail account that had been deleted.


    HOW SAFE ARE YOU AND YOUR PRIVATE FILES?
    All your private files are stored on WebTV's servers. To access them your box must properly identify itself to the server. This storage model is more vulnerable to hacking than if your files were stored on a PC. In fact, Hackers have been able to get into other WebTV subscriber's accounts. Fortunately for WebTV, these Hackers told WebTV how it was done and while this problem has been fixed for now, privately WebTV staff have admitted no security system is foolproof.

    Currently WebTV is having to deal with another serious security problem. Anyone who has another person's User ID number can DELETE that user's account... geographical distance is no obstacle! How would someone get these User IDs in the first place?

    On at least six separate occasions over the past March '98, the WebTV mailservers were giving this information out! For more information please read this September '99 article.

    While the threat above is serious, even more frightening is the WebTV servers occasionally leak more sensitive personal information such as one's real name and home phone number!


    UNFAIR AND ARBITRARY POLICIES:
    WebTV has a number of corporate "partners". While some just make WebTV hardware, others are web-based services like TalkCity which provides Chat services. WebTV essentially herds its users to these partners by providing easy links to their sites.

    It would seem self-evident that whenever we use the services or one of WebTV's partners... we are essentially agreeing to abide by that partner's TOS. If, TalkCity bans a user for misconduct... in the real world we might just expect that user to be banned only from TalkCity.

    Unfortunately, with WebTV this is NOT the case. Being banned from TalkCity has resulted in subscribers being deprived of access to ALL other Chat services... even though the conduct in question may not be a violation of another Chat service's TOS. This policy is both arbitrary and punitive and must be changed.

    Numerous people have had their accounts terminated from WebTV. It is certainly possible that some did transgress WebTV's TOS. But one might never know exactly what one's alleged transgressions were from reading the termination letters. Despite the fact that termination may result in a person being deprived access to their personal file, WebTV offers only form letters filled with exaggerations and often untruths. A subscriber attempting to appeal this decision has no basis for an appeal since specific charges are not stated! For example one hacker who had worked with WebTV to fix security holes and had been thanked for his efforts by now WebTV president Bruce Leak, was recently terminated without warning. His story can be found here. Despite WebTV's knowing he is back on-line, they continue to deny him access to his original account files!


    WEBTV USERS! JOIN THE REVOLT!
    If you are WebTV Subscriber and are upset with WebTV's policies... it is not enough to sit back and endure them, YOU MUST ACT!

    Suggested courses of action (please write with feedback):

    HIT THEM IN THE POCKETBOOK:

  • Do not click on WTV ads.
  • To avoid the VideoAds during login chose "audible dialing" on your Phone Setup Page.
  • Do not click on WTV partner links.
  • Use alternative services rather than those WebTV herds us to.... like TalkCity.
  • Use alternative WebPage providers. The HomeBuilder is much to restrictive anyway.
  • Call WebTV pretending to be a potential customer telling them they just lost a sale.
  • Talk to people looking at WebTV's in stores.
  • If there is the ability to surf from a store... Leave this Site on the screen.

    PROTECT YOUR PRIVATE DATA:

  • Deprive WNI of private data as much as possible. This is not easy since WebTV seemingly tracks everything we do.
  • Every WebTV Ad you click on is Tracked... so why bother?
  • Plus and DishPlayer owners can watch TV and record with their VCR the old-fashioned way... and NOT using the Plus/Dishplayer's built in tuner and VCR functions.
  • Skew the data!As you watch TV the old fashioned way... leave the Plus/Dishplayer TV tuner tuned to what ever station you want. This will make the data WebTV sells to Nielsen unreliable. Maybe only then will WTV offer the option promised by Steve Perlman in the Nov 98 story announcing the start of TV Tracking.

    PROTEST! WRITE! GET INVOLVED!

  • Write WebTV. Don't bother with WeCare write direct to Burce Leak.
  • Write WTV's corporate partners like Nielsen
  • Write WTV's advertisers who depend on WTV's stealing of our private data
  • Write reporters who cover on-line privacy issues or set top boxes to encourage more stories or to alert them to these issues
  • Write to thank reporters who cover these issues.
  • Write pro-privacy advocacy organizations
  • Write your congress person insisting strong pro-privacy laws be enacted
  • Put up links to this site on your HomePage and in Sighs.
  • Tell others in your circle what is going on. Some may not care, but enough will be thankful that they finally know the truth.
  • Get involved in shaping WebTV policies in WebTV-only News Groups such as
    alt.discuss.improve.webtv
    alt.discuss.webtv.privacy
    alt.discuss.webtv.terms-of-service

    Remember... corporations respond to pressure. But if they discover they can get away looking out only for their own interests... they will attempt to get away with what they can. WebTV's self-serving policies are a clear example of this. Also, the trend towards greater and greater invasions of our privacy will only continue if we do not act. WebTV, nor any corporation, is entitled to private data WE choose not to share. If you do not stand up for yourself against the arrogant abuse of corporate power.... no one else will. No one.