Et tu, PBS?

by Sunita

I’ve written regularly about online privacy issues, and readers of this blog know that I teach a course on the politics of privacy. I’ve more or less made my peace with where I leave my data trails and who is harvesting my personal information for material gain. But somehow I did not expect to have to make this kind of calculation for PBS.

I know PBS is a shadow of its former public self; it gets less and less funding from government agencies and more and more from corporations. “PBS” as a national broadcast network is really an aggregation of local stations, and those stations range from tiny and poor to large and influential. Even at the big, well-known stations, money is always tight and they are always looking for ways to get more.

[An aside: PBS is sometimes compared to the BBC. It shouldn’t be, because they are totally different in funding, organization, and cultural context. PBS has always, from its inception, been dependent on federal funding, and its shows are produced by private companies, by tieups between local stations and production companies, or both. It is not-for-profit and it has a stable of well-known public affairs shows, but it also has terrible infomercials and endless fundraising drives.]

In the olden days of online availability, some shows would be available for a brief period of time after their airdates (two weeks to a month), while other shows, mostly the “public affairs” shows like NewsHour, Frontline, etc., were available for much longer. All of them were free, and while you were strongly encouraged to identify your local PBS station, you didn’t have to set up an account or pay anything to stream what was available.

Enter PBS Passport. The higher-ups at PBS, many of whom have for-profit media and other business backgrounds, have seen Netflix and Amazon and all the other streaming models and decided this is the revenue-raising way to go. They’ve tried to pitch it as “giving back something to members” i.e., citizens who give a sufficient donation (a “pledge” in PBS-speak) to PBS get access, but what it has done is put much of its content behind a paywall.

If you go to the website and stream that way, you don’t have to register for the free content. But if you use a PBS app, you do, as of September 2016. For me, this meant that the PBS shows I happily watched through Roku are no longer available unless I sign up with a PBS account.

But Sunita, you say, PBS isn’t charging you for everything; they just want you to register. Why is that such a big deal?

  • Although PBS gets a lot of its money through private contributions, it trades heavily on being a public broadcast network, implicitly and explicitly asserting that it is more community-minded than the for-profits. It points to its wonderful public affairs programs (and they are wonderful) as distinguishing them from the herd. So to make access more difficult for the average person, especially someone who can’t afford cable or who doesn’t even have broadcast TV (some homes can’t get digital signals or don’t have TV stations close by) runs counter to this narrative.
  • PBS Passport creates a two-tiered system, analogous to the one that was created when Sesame Street went to HBO (which was the show’s decision, not PBS’s). If you can afford HBO you can see the new episodes when they come out. If not, you have to wait a few months (or more) for the shows to come to PBS. Sesame Street is a cultural and pedagogical touchstone for millions of children and adults, and when you divide the viewing audience, you change the conversation people can have. The comments to this story about the Passport rollout suggest that previously free shows are now behind a paywall.
  • PBS requires people who watch through the app to register. But having a Roku or another streaming device doesn’t mean you’re rich. Sure, Apple TVs are pricey, like Apple everything, but you can get a streaming stick for less than $50. That’s a great deal for everyone, from single people to families with children. Before, you just opened the app. Now you have to sign up at PBS (or through Facebook or Google+). What does this mean in practice?

Well, let’s look at their privacy policy. As a non-profit, PBS assures me that they are only using the data they collect for the purpose of improving their services and my viewing experience. And it is true that by the standards of most websites, they have very few advertising and tracking cookies.


PBS contracts with third parties, who are most definitely for-profit companies (even those who aren’t making any money yet are part of that tech world where you take venture capital money and dream of the IPO at the end of the rainbow). They may share your information with other third parties. And of course, if you link your PBS account to Facebook, that’s one more source of information for the latter to add to its profile of you, whether you want that to happen or not.

And what about data security? Well, PBS is extremely vague about that. The word “reasonable” crops up in places where more precise language would be welcome:

We have adopted reasonable technical, administrative, and physical procedures to help protect your information from loss, misuse, and alteration. Please note that no data transmission or storage can be guaranteed to be 100% secure.

Gosh, thanks for reminding me that data cannot be guaranteed to be secure without telling me what you’re doing to increase the likelihood that it will be.

Right now, the only show I really care about seeing is the NewsHour, and they have a YouTube channel (and Roku has YouTube so we can watch it on TV rather than on the computer if we want). They post each day’s show in its entirety three hours after it airs, so that’s not bad.

But for everything else? For people who enjoy the documentaries, and the nature shows, and all the other not-obviously-commercial material? Give them your data and hope they manage it securely.

Toward the end of the privacy policy statement, which most people won’t ever read, is this information about third-party sharing:

“We may share aggregated or anonymized information with third parties, including to help us develop content and services that we hope you will find of interest or to help these third parties develop their own products and service offerings.” (emphasis added)

Anonymization and de-identification are not magic tools which instantly render you unrecognizeable. There is research showing that, for example, de-identified fitness tracker data can be merged with other data to identify individuals. The point isn’t that PBS is going to do this; the point is that neither they nor we know what they will do in the future (or what the third-parties will do) with the data.

I’ve already given up on NPR as a public service media entity, with a few local exceptions. But despite all the crappy, verging-on-dangerous-to-believe infomercials they carry, I’d hung on with PBS. Now, I just don’t know.

We hear a lot about public-private partnerships in this era of shrinking government spending and celebration of all things entrepreneurial. And some of them are fine. But I’m deeply uncomfortable with a publicly funded entity sharing personal data with for-profit companies, especially small, volatile tech firms who may be acquired or go under and then take or sell your data to yet another company. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s tag line is “A private corporation funded by the American people,” and it claims to act as “a guardian of the mission and purposes for which public broadcasting was established.” But who is guarding the guardian?