Broadband Industry Think Tank Claims Comcast Plan To Charge More For Privacy 'Pro Consumer'

from the nonsense-for-hire dept

Earlier this month Comcast told the FCC that the cable company wanted to be able to charge broadband customers a premium for privacy, and that blocking the ISP from doing so would hurt broadband adoption, raise broadband prices, and harm consumers. While Comcast was justly mocked for this position, many didn’t realize that this is something AT&T has been doing for years, the ISP charging its U-Verse broadband customers $30 to $50 more every month if they want to opt out of “AT&T Preferences,” a deep packet inspection snoopvertising service that tracks user behavior all around the Internet.

Prompted by Verizon’s use of stealth tracking technology and this new troubling plan to make privacy a luxury option for consumers, the FCC has been cooking up some new, relatively basic broadband privacy protections. To derail these plans, AT&T and Comcast have turned to what I affectionately refer to as fauxcademia, or industry-funded think tanks specifically designed to pee in the public discourse pool influence regulatory policy under the guise of objective science.

Enter the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), which in a new report tries to argue that forcing broadband consumers to pay more to protect their privacy is secretly a “pro consumer” position that will bestow countless, miraculous benefits to the internet at large. The ITIF’s Doug Brake actually goes so far as to try and argue that only “absolutists” could possibly oppose paying their ISPs even more money just to keep their data from being collected and sold:

“Consumers derive significant value from broadband service plans that offer discounts for data. Policymakers should allow providers to continue the practice,? said Doug Brake, telecommunications policy analyst at ITIF, who authored the report. ?Privacy advocates have tried to tar any such business model as ?pay-for-privacy,? but they represent a small minority of absolutists. Prohibiting data-based price differentiation for the majority of consumers who are far more pragmatic would be terrible policy and a remarkably paternalistic departure from a common practice that is widely accepted throughout the economy.”

That charging users more money to protect their own privacy is somehow a “discount” is the same bullshit narrative not-coincidentally trotted out by AT&T to justify these glorified price hikes. But it’s worth understanding that in AT&T’s case, users not only have to pay a steep premium ($528 to $792 more every year) to opt out of being spied on, they have to navigate an intentionally confusing series of menus to complete the deal. AT&T’s not offering a discount; it’s actively deterring the majority of consumers from opting out, knowing full well most have only AT&T and Comcast to choose from.

There’s nothing remotely noble about what AT&T (and potentially Comcast) is doing here, and the ITIF’s claim that only “absolutists” are bothered by the idea is embarrassing. Meanwhile, the study’s “evidence” of the benefits of a new ISP privacy surcharge is a rotating crop of marginally related insights and citations to the ITIF’s own work on the broadband privacy front, most of which has been equally laughable.

Like when the think tank argued no broadband privacy rules are needed because ISPs have time and time again shown themselves to be nothing more than harmless sweethearts that don’t really collect user data anyway. Ignore, of course, that Verizon and AT&T were found sneakily modifying user packets to track consumers around the Internet for two years before the practice was even discovered by security researchers, initially with no real warning or functional opt out tools. Incapable of justifying this behavior, the ITIF just keeps recycling the same, lazy argument with slight variation:

“These price-differentiation models allow service providers to offer cheaper broadband Internet to those who choose to allow their data to be used in machine-based analytics that enable things like better ad targeting,? said Brake. ?Discounts also put downward pressure on prices even for consumers who choose not to take the discount, and they help add users to the broadband ecosystem.”

Right, except that doesn’t happen. You’ll never find a broadband provider offering a discount below existing market pricing to users opting in to data collection, because without real broadband competition, there’s simply no incentive to. Granted the ITIF is the type of for-hire nonsense factory that can’t even admit that the U.S. broadband market isn’t very competitive, so if you’re wading into the “research paper” (read: a collection of spurious ISP claims scotch taped together under the pretense of real science) looking for valid supporting evidence, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

No, all we’ve got here is a broadband-industry tied think tank arguing that adding a steep privacy fee to what’s already among the most expensive broadband in the developed world (OECD data) will somehow miraculously make the world better for everyone. To obfuscate the fact that the think tank is incapable of actually supporting such an absurd conclusion, it leans heavily on straw man arguments like the idea that critics of pay-for-privacy plans just don’t want to pay their fair share for broadband:

“Advocates calling for a ban want to have their cake and eat it too,? Brake noted. ?They want ubiquitous, undifferentiated service for everyone, but they don?t want to pay for it. They bemoan the price of high-speed broadband as too high for low-income Americans. Yet they want to close off opportunities to lower prices. It makes no sense.”

Bullshit. Broadband prices remain high because of regulatory capture, too few broadband options, revolving door regulators, and a culture that prioritizes for-hire policy sockpuppetry over honest conversation. This collective dysfunction has spawned yet another attempt to hammer consumers with additional surcharges, and if the best supporting argument the ITIF can come up with is that raising broadband prices will magically lower broadband prices, it may want to give up on policy-for-hire and take up watercolors.

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Companies: at&t, comcast, itif

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Comments on “Broadband Industry Think Tank Claims Comcast Plan To Charge More For Privacy 'Pro Consumer'”

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34 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Without strict regulation I don’t trust the providers to actually stop monitoring even if you do pay them. I can easily see them claim they just anonymized the USER ID from their database, but left all of the other tracking in place. So they adhere to the letter of the payment agreement, but still get to keep all of the benefits of their tracking.

Karl Bode (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Basic privacy rules is not “strict regulation.” As it stands, the FCC is simply asking for clear transparency on what’s collected and working opt out tools. They’re also looking to ban privacy as a luxury option. Until we get real broadband competition, regulatory meddling is part of the game. It comes down to what kind of regulation you want in telecom: regulation serving YOU, or regulation written by AT&T and Comcast that kicks your ass.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Might Work

The problem is not that people click agree without reading pages upon pages of legalese EULA, the problem is that any of those EULA’s are enforceable. No one reads those. And the important bits could easily be summarized into a couple of sentences of human readable text. But companies bury it intentionally so that they can claim they “informed users” about some thing and have “proof” that some one “agreed” to it without having to risk scaring their users away with shady practices were they to actually inform their users about the policy.

Reasonable Coward says:

I guess I disagree

I’m sick and tired of being tracked and marketed to, and actually like the option of being able to pay extra to maintain privacy. I just wish Google, Facebook, and others would offer such options as well. We’re always complaining about tracking, spying, and advertising, but companies need to fund what they do somehow. So offering an option is a step in the right direction IMO.

However, that price differential is pretty high, and if any ISP wants to have different prices for the spying vs. no spying options, they should be required to promote the prices thusly, in large, legible fonts, to encourage competition and truth in advertising:

$90/month standard price
$50/month if you let us spy on what you do

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I guess I disagree

Maybe, but this is unaccaptable in my mind. The “extra fee” is more then I pay for 100/100 with unlimited data (europe with working competition). Gigabit is also moving very close to the 50$ a month and can go for under that forblimited time offers. An ISP should be a dumb pipe, and have absolitely no business in what you use it for.

Reasonable Coward says:

Re: Re: I guess I disagree

I would agree that the price differential is too high, and that ISPs should be dumb pipes. But I’m still encouraged by the fact that you have a choice, however expensive. I would like this option to become more commonplace.

After all, which would you prefer: that an ISP spies on you and offers no choice in the matter, or that you at least have a privacy option?

My true preference would be for it to be illegal for ISPs to even look at this data, much less retain it.

Anonymous Coward says:

You’re foolish to make this one way argument. You need to think a little deeper. Compare premium network vs. networks that advertise. Of course premium will cost more because lack of advertising revenue that flows in. This is the same scenario. Here, Internet price point has been set at 80 for gigabit internet speed and the way to discount is offer advertising help add revenue and pass that saving to the customer by reducing the price.

Regardless of whether you follow or believe the argument, how about you write a fair piece and cover both sides of the argument before going off on your idiotic rampage.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“This is the same scenario.”

No, it’s not. The issue with what Comcast is doing isn’t the advertising, it’s the spying. Comcast is essentially engaging in an extortion racket here, requiring “protection money” to keep them from attacking you.

And even then, we have no assurance that if you pay them the money they’ll actually stop with the spying.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Even ignoring the aspect of this which John Fenderson addressed, there’s still the fact that they are not in fact offering a “discount” compared to their previous pricing.

Instead, they are charging the same amount as before for the with-tracking service, and more on top of that for the without-tracking service.

No one gets a discount there; everyone continues to pay at least as much as they used to before this tracking version of the service came along. It’s just that you now have the option to pay even more in order to get what you used to get for the basic price.

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