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Facebook offers to pay users for their voice recordings

Facebook Portal
Facebook’s Portal virtual assistant product in operation.
(Facebook)

Facebook is offering to pay its users for personal information, including recordings of their own voices, in a rare example of internet companies directly compensating people for collecting their data.

The recordings, made through its new market research app Viewpoints, will help to train the speech recognition system that powers Facebook’s Portal devices, which rival Amazon’s Echo speakers and its Alexa virtual assistant.

Makers of smart speakers, including Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google, faced criticism last year when it emerged that they were routinely sending users’ voice recordings to human moderators, without revealing the practice to customers or obtaining their consent.

Facebook’s move also opens the door to an idea that politicians and regulators have long suggested: that the data Facebook and other online platforms collect is so valuable to the companies and their advertisers that consumers ought to be paid for it.

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The social network’s Viewpoints app, which was first released three months ago to test new features and survey users, this week began to invite users in the U.S. to say “Hey Portal” and the names of up to 10 friends. Going through the recording process five times would earn points that can be converted into a $5 cash reward.

Data, and how it should be valued, has become a new focus for business competition regulators in recent years. This week, the European Commission said that dominant tech companies would have to share their data with smaller rivals under “fair, transparent, reasonable, proportionate and/or nondiscriminatory conditions.”

Critics of internet companies’ data hoarding have long argued that consumers were not being appropriately remunerated for handing over vast amounts of their most intimate details, even though Facebook’s social network, Google’s search engine and similar tools are offered for free.

“Competition problems may result in consumers receiving inadequate compensation for their attention and the use of their data,” the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority said in a report on digital advertising in December. “Although many online services are currently provided for free, in a well-functioning market, consumers might be paid for their engagement online, or offered a choice over the amount of data they provide.”

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Facebook said this week that its latest Viewpoints feature was designed to “improve speech understanding” by training machine-learning algorithms, which rely on a large number of examples to improve their accuracy and performance.

“Participants record phrases within the app, which helps us improve name pronunciation recognition in our products to better serve the people that use them,” a Facebook representative said.

Any data gathered though Viewpoints “helps us build better apps and services and benefit the community,” Facebook said on the service’s website. “We don’t share your Facebook Viewpoints activity on Facebook or on other accounts you’ve linked without your permission. We also don’t sell your information from this app to third parties.”

However, the Viewpoints data policy notes that some information collected using the app, such as payment and device data, can be used to personalize other Facebook apps and target advertising. Data collected during a Viewpoints research program may also be shared with “research partners,” including academics, publishers and advertisers, though Facebook said participants would be informed if that was the case.

© The Financial Times Ltd. 2020. All rights reserved. FT and Financial Times are trademarks of the Financial Times Ltd. Not to be redistributed, copied or modified in any way.


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