Services such as Amazon’s Alexa could be regulated to allow rival digital assistants to operate on smart speakers and stop the tech giants building a monopoly “in people’s kitchens and living rooms”, the head of the BBC’s radio operation has said.
James Purnell, the director of radio and education at the BBC, made the comments weeks after the BBC launched its own voice-activated digital assistant, named Beeb, which offers information such as news, weather and programmes.
The BBC is already struggling to keep youth audiences tuning into its TV programming in the Netflix era, and Purnell raised the spectre of the Silicon Valley giants extending that to control of audio access as smart speakers become commonplace.
“We now have smart speakers in so many homes, and they are going to be in far more homes,” he said, speaking to MPs on the digital, media, culture and sport select committee. “There is a question about whether we are happy about the biggest organisations in the world, big tech companies with their executives essentially [based] in the [United] States, combining a monopoly in people’s kitchens and in living rooms.
“I do think it is worth thinking about whether there should be some regulation of those smart speakers so there is a choice of assistance for people. So if [people] want to say ‘Hey Beeb’ and ask us a question, for example, about the virus, they can do that easily on a device whoever has made it.”
Purnell raised the prospect of regulation after telling the committee that the BBC had felt unable to reach deals with Amazon and Google, which has the rival Google Home smart speaker, to make the corporation’s coronavirus coverage available on their smart speakers.
He said that being cut off from knowing what questions were being asked by smart speaker users made it difficult to provide a BBC response, and raised issues of impartiality and accuracy.
“Both Amazon and Google wanted to kind of scrape our news to offer information on coronavirus via their smart speakers,” he said. “We were worried if we didn’t have the ability to get the questions from the public we then didn’t have the ability to choose ourselves the information to offer up; that could undermine our news values and reputation to impartiality and accuracy. We tried to work with them to have a way with their systems of us having that editorial oversight but we weren’t able to do that.”
Purnell said the BBC did manage to launch an information service called the BBC Corona Bot with Facebook.