The Impending Internet Revolution: The rise of voice and the risk it poses to privacy


Following a discussion about ‘The Impending Internet Revolution’ between our Managing Director, Suzie Shaw, and Kepios founder, Simon Kemp, as part of Vivid Ideas this week, we dive headfirst below into the growing world of voice and discuss its resounding ramifications on platforms, brands, marketing, big data, privacy and the consumer.

The much-maligned practice of talking to oneself is fast becoming the norm. By this time next year, most of us will be in conversation with ourselves on a regular basis. Fear not – it’s marginally less unhinged than it sounds.

There are already two billion of us using voice. Add to that the 100 million people who have started using voice in the last three months alone and it fast becomes apparent that we should all be speaking – and listening – up.

“It’s very, very clear – and I don’t mean this in a [hyperbolic] sense – [that] voice is the future,” says Simon Kemp, global thought leader in digital marketing and global consultant for We Are Social. In the last year in Australia alone, the number of people using voice has surged by 25%. “That is a meaningful change in behaviour,” says Kemp. “As marketers, we need to recognise that this is going to be an interface that impacts the way that everybody we want to engage with uses their devices.”

The technologies we live with have added a whole new layer of connectivity to every aspect of our lives. However, people are increasingly aware of the risks of this all-pervasive connectivity. Unless we work to mitigate some of these risks, we run the risk of destroying the value that has been created – potentially forever.

“The position we find ourselves in is one where we’re working to resolve problems that are of our own creation,” says Shaw. “It’s something we have to work to fix and we can’t ‘market’ our way around these social problems we’ve contributed to.”

Internet use around the world is not evenly distributed. Every single day, another million people around the world come online for the very first time. The pace of that growth is accelerating thanks to an influx of cheaper devices and data alike providing access to an increasingly targeted variety of content and services applicable to on an individual basis all around the world. In India alone last year, 100 million people came online. One of the first things many do when they come online is use social media.

We know that content that speaks to us in our own language is more engaging. In the developing world, however, much of that content is out of reach, with language and literacy levels providing a barrier to entry to the vast majority of content on the internet, which is why video content is so big in countries where literacy rates are low and data is cheap. It’s in countries like China that the evolution of the internet is taking an entirely different path, and where, on platforms like WeChat, the need to type is fast becoming redundant with the advent of voice messaging and voice powered interfaces – not just using for recording messages, but controlling devices as well.

Voice changes everything in terms of how we market”, says Shaw. The way we search, shop and approach security online – and even the way we’ve measured success until now, primarily through clicks – means “we’re going to have to rethink the way we approach everything. Our deep entrenchment in a visual marketing environment requires that we lead, rather than follow, consumers into the voice-driven world.”

Retail environments in particular will face significant challenges. “Unless you’re the category generic [brand], it could mean that you risk being depositioned by this new world in which voice is going to help us shop” through algorithmic selections provided to them through trusted AI assistants. “Essentially, it’s going to offer infinite shelf space,” says Shaw. “But if you’re a small brand, that could create new opportunities.”

That’s why big data has become so significant. When you consider the capabilities for machine learning to process and translate the desires of a customer into recommendable products, the need for huge quantities of data becomes glaringly apparent. Access to enormous quantities of data has then, unsurprisingly, become hugely advantageous. But big data is not without outsize risks.

When you consider the world’s ten largest companies by market valuation, the vast majority of those are data-driven tech companies. Their once unimaginable growth in recent years, of course, comes down to our shared belief (as marketers) that ultimately these companies can actually help us with that elusive understanding of what our consumers need and how to encourage them to act on those emotions as well.

Consider the vast quantities of data Facebook has amassed from your personal use; add to that the over 275 million websites that have Facebook plugins; or Alphabet’s portfolio, which alone accounts for more than four billion mobile devices in use globally, not to mention Google and YouTube. Then factor in a suite of home devices and voice controls which are able to discern the tone of your voice and the equation complicates even further. Layer on top the thinking that each of us has a unique vocal fingerprint that can be discerned through voice biometrics, and things start to get a little creepy.

“The device, if it has your voice biometric, can identify you wherever you speak,” says Kemp, invoking the Big Brother conceit we’re all well-versed in by now. “There’s no way to opt out of this. In the same way you can’t stop CCTV in the street from watching you, you can’t really opt out of someone’s device tracking you while you’re speaking as well.”

It’s no surprise then that privacy has become a major topic of conversation (and concern) not just in the industry but in media more generally. Some 70% of us today are more concerned about privacy than we were at this time last year. More than half of us delete our cookies to protect our privacy, yet welcome smart home devices into our home. “We’re actually paying to make the problem worse,” says Kemp, citing the Privacy Paradox.

We need to make a clear distinction between different kinds of data risks as they relate to privacy and security. Security risks mostly arise from criminal activity, chiefly the invasion and theft of data from your personal space. Our social platforms share a concern for these security risks for the threat that they pose to their businesses. Privacy risks, however, are a lot more subjective.

There are two principles that marketers need to consider. The first is informed consent, whether or not we choose to undertake something knowing all the facts. The second is whether or not we can change that decision once we’ve made it and what the implications of what that change would be. Informed consent is managed through those ubiquitous privacy policies we’re all familiar with, if only for their impenetrable length and legalese. And while a third of us claim that we read terms and conditions, the reality suggests that only 1% of us read licensing agreements at all, with the average person spending just six seconds on them.

The vast majority of us do not have a sufficient level of education to understand what we’re agreeing to. And even if we do, the scope for self-determination is limited. You either opt-in, or you get nothing – something Kemp considers to be “bullying on a massive scale”.

But there’s an opportunity here for us to arrest the sense of this getting out of control, Shaw says of restoring the balance between the corporate and the consumer. “And [we can] actually do the right thing and build brand equity” in the process.

“It’s easy to think [these big companies] need to deal with this, but the reality is, we’re all somewhat complicit,” says Shaw. “We are all also somewhat reliant on the way in which they currently they do business to continue to engage our audiences.”

Fortunately, some interesting solutions are emerging. The one that has shown the most promise is the idea of Portable Digital Identities, the most prominent of which is called Solid – an invention of none other than Tim Berners-Lee and MIT.

Restoring ownership of data to the individual would make users able to share their data in a ‘modular’ fashion, parcelling it out as they deem appropriate and allowing for its reuse as required, with security underpinned by blockchain technology.

“That would essentially return control of your data to the individual, but we can’t underestimate the scale and gravity of this change,” warns Shaw. “It could also destroy the business models of organisation like Facebook and Google. The services and technologies these company offer are central to all of our marketing plans [and] billions of users on a daily basis,” and so wholesale repossession of our data doesn’t immediately appear to be the answer if it threatens the endurance and security of ongoing business success.

A solution then, will require a fine negotiation of three important factors: government regulation, user savviness and corporate responsibility. And while the answer is not immediately evident, Shaw advocates for the industry taking an active role in finding a solution rather than letting it fall squarely on the shoulders of legislators.

Aptly enough, it’s a no-brainer. When people are better informed, they’re able to make better decisions, and marketers have a role to play in building better digital literacy and increasing transparency around the use of consumer data, rather than maintaining a role as passive observers to the debate. According to Shaw, while GDRP (General Data Protection Regulation) has come a long way when it comes to setting the standard, it’s by no means the end of the conversation, with the risks around data and sustainability not fully assured. Regulation is an essential step toward a healthy society, and each of us has a part in making that conversation a meaningful one.

As organisations more broadly, Kemp asserts that we can all do more. “If data is the new oil,” he says, “then privacy is our climate change moment. We’re destroying the environment that we live and we’re potentially risking the bright future that we thought we had.”

With so much distrust in this sphere, doing the right thing provides a commercial opportunity for brands to set the standard in a respectful way with consideration of the audience at front of mind. Kemp advocates for marketers to increase their understanding of how they collect and use data rather than absolving ourselves of any personal responsibility. “Let’s look at this as a Fair Trade opportunity where nobody suffers and everybody sees the benefit,” he says.

A more radical approach would be to move away from relying on collecting data that allows us to interrupt people, and look at creating mutual value instead.

Invariably, a certain amount of data to allow for an understanding is required in this value exchange, but understanding what your audience’s fundamental desires and needs are can be used to deliver real value.

It’s clear that voice is the future, and while it won’t entirely replace the content mix or render other interfaces redundant, there’s no ignoring the mounting chorus. Each of us will need to consider audio branding in a world without visual cues, or what search will look like knowing that most people won’t look beyond the first result when using voice.

As for privacy, which is intrinsically linked to the growth of voice, the sooner we can all increase our involvement in this debate, the sooner we can look to create solutions that work for everyone. As marketers, we need to set the standard and abandon the thinking that this monumental shift in culture can be deferred to someone else. Yours is a voice that matters too, after all.