Comcast Tells The FCC It Should Be Able To Charge Broadband Users A Premium For Privacy
from the stop-trying-to-help dept
A few years back, we noted how AT&T had begun charging broadband users a significant premium if they wanted to opt out of the company’s Internet Essentials advertising program. Under that program, AT&T uses deep packet inspection to track consumer browsing behavior around the Internet — down to the second. By default, AT&T users are opted in to the program. If they want to opt out of this data collection, consumers need to not only navigate a confusing array of options, but they also need to pay $44 to $62 more per month. AT&T, in typical fashion, has actually claimed this is a “discount.”
With the FCC’s Title II and net neutrality rules upheld, the agency is now considering new basic broadband privacy protections primarily focused on two things: ensuring ISPs properly disclose what’s being collected and sold, and ensuring that ISPs provide customers with clear, working opt-out tools. But the agency is also considering banning ISPs from turning your privacy into an expensive luxury option.
Needless to say, Comcast isn’t too pleased with this decision. In a new filing with the FCC (pdf) documenting a meeting at the agency, everybody’s least liked cable company argues that stopping them from charging more for privacy would, amusingly, hurt consumers by making services more expensive:
“We also urged that the Commission allow business models offering discounts or other value to consumers in exchange for allowing ISPs to use their data. As Comcast and others have argued, the FCC has no authority to prohibit or limit these types of programs. Moreover, such a prohibition would harm consumers by, among other things, depriving them of lower-priced offerings, and as FTC Commissioner Ohlhausen points out, ?such a ban may prohibit ad supported broadband services and thereby eliminate a way to increase broadband adoption.”
Yes, that’s Comcast actually trying to argue that charging customers more money for privacy is a good thing because it will lower rates and improve broadband adoption. Except as we all know, it’s the lack of competition in the broadband space that sets broadband pricing and adoption. And there’s yet to be an ISP that has seriously embraced the idea of offering a lower-priced service if consumers agree to have their behavior monetized. All AT&T is doing is taking an already expensive broadband service and tacking a very steep privacy surcharge on top of it.
In addition to trying to argue that the FCC doesn’t have the authority to police such behavior (not true, it’s simply updating existing Title II privacy rules governing phone network CPNI and applying them to broadband), Comcast said that making privacy a luxury option is simply a “bargained-for exchange of information for service”:
“A bargained-for exchange of information for service is a perfectly acceptable and widely used model throughout the U.S. economy, including the Internet ecosystem, and is consistent with decades of legal precedent and policy goals related to consumer protection and privacy.”
Again though, the implementation of this idea at AT&T is unique because in the broadband market, users can’t switch providers if they don’t like their privacy practices. Meanwhile, AT&T not only makes opting out expensive, it makes it incredibly cumbersome and confusing — ensuring that the least number of users actually take the option. These ISPs consistently argue that they should be treated just like Google and Facebook when it comes to privacy regulations, intentionally ignoring the lack of competition in last mile broadband.
As they push harder into content and ads, Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon have all repeatedly tried to argue that there should be absolutely no privacy rules governing broadband because they can self-regulate in the absence of meaningful competition. But as we saw when Verizon was busted for covertly modifying wireless packets to track consumers (one of the things that drove the FCC to take this route to begin with), it’s abundantly clear that’s simply not the case.