There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Nor is there such a thing as a free TV.
But Telly TV is offering just that. Its 55-inch smart TV is free to the first 500,000 people who put their name on a reservation list. At a glance, it looks like any other TV worth hundreds of dollars. But below the screen, separated by a sound bar, sits a second, smaller screen. Here, people will see weather and stock market updates alongside ads—lots and lots of ads.
This is what Telly’s CEO and founder, Ilya Pozin, describes as the “biggest innovation in television since color.” That innovation? Rather than pay for the big screen you’re force-fed advertising through, Telly is giving you the TV free of charge. So instead of paying for a TV and a bunch of channels or streaming services while companies make money from advertising and selling personal data, people can at least get the TV for free, the logic goes.
But this is no ordinary TV—and it comes with no ordinary set of terms and conditions. Telly’s data policy says that it may “collect information about the audio and video content you watch, the channels you view, and the duration of your viewing sessions.” Telly also has a built-in microphone camera that can track motion and be used for video calling, fitness, or video games—although the camera does come with a shutter that someone must open and can close, according to the company.
The TV also tracks a customer’s queries, settings, preferences, applications, purchases, and the buttons they click; the time, frequency, and duration of their viewing or activities, and the physical presence of people using the TV. The company even collects what it calls cultural and social identifiers, giving the example of whether someone is a fan of a specific sports team, a skateboarder, or an environmental activist.
Viewing and activity data is anonymized and shared with third-party data partners and advertisers, according to Telly. And if people opt out of sharing their data, they lose Telly services and must return the free TV—or be charged for it.
Telly’s business model assumes people are ultimately resigned to giving away their data and complacently trading it for convenience, or in this case, a new screen. But the full consequences of sharing personal data from the living room have yet to be realized.
“What this product does is lean into the idea that all of this is going to happen anyway, so you might as well get free hardware out of it,” says Nathalie Maréchal, codirector of the Privacy and Data Project at the nonprofit Center for Technology and Democracy. “But for me, the point is that a different world is possible.”
Telly doesn’t view its methods as novel. “Nearly all smart TVs today collect data on consumption and viewership,” says Dallas Lawrence, chief strategy officer at Telly. Lawrence explains that people complete a five minute survey when joining, where they disclose brand preferences, household demographics, and interests. The only difference between Telly and other TVs, Lawrence claims, is that the company asks people to share their data up front, and they get a free TV in return.