News

August 2, 2018

Voice assistants: a threat to pluralist news and information

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is concerned about the danger that the growing market for smart environments may pose for pluralism in news and information.

“OK Google, tell me the news.” The arrival of smart home assistants such as Google Home constitutes a new stage in the digital revolution that began with so-called intelligent voice assistants on smartphones such as Siri. But the surge in use of digital assistants and connected devices is revolutionizing access to media content and could threaten its diversity.


Gone is the era of conducting searches by typing keywords into a search engine. Apps recognize the user’s voice and interact with it, orally delivering the result of an algorithmic operation designed to respond to the request. But there’s a problem. The intelligent assistant selects the news sources and limits the number of results, often to just one, using criteria that are still largely opaque.


“The development of voice assistants raises the question of guarantees for pluralism in news and information,” said Elodie Vialle, the head of RSF’s Journalism and Technology desk. “By personalizing the distribution of news without leaving room for serendipity and diversity in what is made available, voice assistants are liable to reinforce the opaque and often pay-based methods of media content distribution that exist already.”


In RSF’s view, the media’s interest in these voice assistants – in terms of innovation and formats – must not divert attention from the need for their developers to provide guarantees for pluralistic media content.


RSF’s concern is increased by the fact that the impact of the development of voice assistants on the freedom to inform has not been sufficiently studied, although the market is booming. Forbes reports that 50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020. Nearly a third of the population in the USA, Brazil, Mexico, India and China – a country wooed by Google where the news is under total control – will be using voice assistants by the end of 2018, according to a study by Accenture.


These figures are whetting the gargantuan appetites of those who are already hyper-dominant in the provision of news. And for good reason: those who control the interface will be in a position of strength as regards imposing their services. In this economic model, news is just a loss leader. E-commerce, advertising and the sale of data about users will generate 16 billion dollars in earnings in 2021, according one of the many marketing studies published on the subject.


By collecting, analysing, and centralizing data from the immediate physical environment as well as the online content viewed by the user, smart environment assistants raise many other concerns. “These are devices that listen a lot but care little,” says the French newspaper Libération, citing the gathering and collective exploitation of data about users and the obvious danger of surveillance, as well as the constant bugs.