In a unique approach, a startup called Telly plans to offer free TVs instead of the usual free or cheap streaming services that rely on data monetization and personalized ads.

Led by Ilya Pozin (the founder of Pluto TV), Telly aims to ship potentially millions of 55-inch, dual-screen 4K smart TVs to households across the United States, completely free of charge; the first batch of 500,000 TVs will be given to those who sign up for Telly, with deliveries scheduled for this summer and subsequent orders will be shipped in 2024.

The response has been impressive, with over 100,000 sign-ups within the first 36 hours. Particularly, younger adults, including Gen Zers and millennials, make up two-thirds of the sign-ups — however, there’s a significant condition for obtaining these TVs: interested users must agree to provide a substantial amount of sensitive data.

Service aims to offer free TVs but wants your sensitive data in exchange (Image: Telly TV).

Telly’s free TV comes with impressive specifications; valued at $1,000, the smart TV features artificial intelligence, voice control, and motion-sensor capabilities. It includes a five-driver soundbar with a high-definition camera, separating the top traditional TV display from a smaller screen below that displays personalized ads.

The smaller screen can also synchronize with mobile apps while the main screen is in use. Although it can be turned off completely, it must remain on when the main screen is active. Telly assures users that the camera has a privacy shutter and is only necessary for specific applications like video-conferencing or motion-tracking apps and games.

Even so, there’s a catch. As the popular tech adage goes, “if the product is free, you’re the product.” Telly’s ad-supported TV set exemplifies this notion: to receive the free TV, users are required to provide extensive personal data upfront — in addition to basic information like name, address, email, and telephone number, users must complete a five-minute survey that collects data on their preferred brands, shopping habits, household size, income, and more.

Valued at $1,000, the smart TV features artificial intelligence, voice control, and motion-sensor capabilities. (Image: Telly TV)

Furthermore, the terms of service state that users must have a credit card on file to use the TV. If users violate these terms by attempting to disable certain ads or disconnecting the TV from WiFi for an extended period, Telly reserves the right to request the return of the TV and a failure to comply may result in charges to the user’s credit card.

It’s important to note that users cannot simply dispose of or give away the TV if they no longer want it — they must return it to Telly, or they may face additional charges. The exact amount for breaking the terms of service and failing to return the TV has not been disclosed.

Telly’s business model is raising concerns

These data collection practices have raised concerns among consumers and privacy experts. Critics argue that Telly’s extensive data collection, even with user consent, could have unforeseen consequences. Some worry about the impact on children in households with the TV, although individuals under the age of 18 are ineligible to apply.

Dallas Lawrence, Telly’s Chief Strategic Officer, acknowledges the level of data collection but emphasizes the company’s transparency. He argues that regular smart TVs collect similar data without explicit consent, while Telly is upfront about its data harvesting in exchange for a free device.

Lawrence states that users have a choice: if they are uncomfortable sharing their information, they can opt not to get a Telly. On the other hand, those willing to share their data will receive a high-value TV worth $1,000.

While Telly’s offer of free smart TVs is appealing, users should carefully consider the privacy implications and weigh the value of the TV against the potential risks of data sharing.

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