Think Tank Argues That Giving Up Privacy Is Good For The Poor
from the hurting-the-poor-helps-the-poor dept
With ISPs like AT&T now charging broadband customers a steep premium just to protect their own privacy, the FCC has begun looking at some relatively basic new privacy protections for broadband. This has, as you might expect, resulted in a notable bump in histrionics from the industry. Comcast, for example, quickly tried to inform the FCC that charging users a surcharge for privacy was ok because it would somehow magically lower broadband prices, and banning them from this kind of behavior would do a tremendous disservice to the internet at large.
Anybody even marginally aware of the lack of competition in broadband understands this is just another attempt to take advantage of captive customers in a broken market. But the broadband industry quickly doubled down, using the usual assortment of payrolled think tanks to pollute the discourse pool. The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), for example, was quick to try and claim that charging all broadband users steep premiums for privacy would generate huge benefits for the entire “internet ecosystem,” and that anybody who couldn’t see the genius of such a practice was an “absolutist.”
But a think tank by the name of the Technology Policy Institute has doubled down on the already dumb double down, with an op-ed at the Hill that tries to claim that such a privacy surcharge would actually help the poor:
“‘Pay-for-privacy’ plans disproportionately benefit lower-income individuals. Indeed, the notion that offering an additional option would be detrimental to any consumers, whatever their income, is misguided…”A plan that offers a discount in exchange for data may enable a lower-income consumer both to have internet service and pay for groceries. Depriving the consumer of that choice may put the internet connection out of reach.”
Pause with me to understand what’s being claimed here for a moment. Mr. Thomas M. Lenard is actually trying to claim that adding a privacy surcharge to what’s already some of the most expensive broadband in the developed world will somehow help the poor buy groceries. I’ve seen a lot of nonsense in sixteen years writing about telecom, but this latest storm of disinformation surrounding the FCC’s new privacy push should qualify for some kind of award.
Like AT&T and Comcast, these think tanks are violently misrepresenting what’s actually happening here. AT&T charges its U-Verse broadband customers $528 to $792 more every year (up to $62 more per month) to opt out of the company’s Internet Preferences program, which uses deep packet inspection to track your online behavior — down to the second. Not only is that not anything close to a discount, but AT&T makes opting out as cumbersome as possible. The hope is to heavily penalize opting out and to actively punish broadband users that protect their own privacy.
ISPs consistently try to argue that they shouldn’t be regulated differently from Google and Facebook on privacy, and that argument surfaces again here:
“AT&T is giving the subscriber the opportunity to allow advertisers to pay part of the subscription fee. What would be the rationale for allowing Google to offer advertising-supported service but not AT&T?
(Raises hand) Because AT&T and Comcast enjoy a duopoly or monopoly over the last mile? Google or Facebook customers unhappy with their privacy policies can simply stop using these services (imagine the exodus by customers of either company if they tried to charge money to opt out of select privacy practices?). Broadband customers, in contrast, have nowhere to flee if one or both of their broadband options engages in hostile privacy practices the likes of which we’re seeing here. Because AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are pushing harder into content and online ads doesn’t change this underlying reality.
Between privacy surcharges, Verizon’s getting busted for covertly modifying user packets to track user behavior, and cable companies bragging how they provide worse customer service for low credit customers, most people should be able to understand why the FCC thinks it may be time for some basic broadband privacy rules. Given that an informed broadband subscriber with the tools to protect their privacy could potentially cost these companies billions, it should also be easy to understand why think tanks and the ISPs that fund them have ratcheted up attempts to derail the effort using some of the most ridiculous arguments imaginable.