AT&T Says It's Eyeing 'Wireless Discounts For Ads.' But It's Not Going To Be What You Think.
from the when-a-discount-isn't dept
AT&T is telling Reuters that it’s considering offering wireless customers a “$5 to $10 reduction in their bill” in exchange for some targeted ads:
“I believe there?s a segment of our customer base where given a choice, they would take some load of advertising for a $5 or $10 reduction in their mobile bill,? Stankey said. Various companies including Amazon.com Inc, Virgin Mobile USA and Sprint?s Boost Mobile have tested advertising supported phone services since the early 2000s but they have not caught on. AT&T is hoping that better advertising targeting could revive the idea.”
Doling out discounts in exchange for ads doesn’t sound like a bad idea on its face. The problem is that’s not quite what AT&T is planning. AT&T’s goal here is to create a paradigm where people willing to be tracked and hammered with behavioral ads will pay less than those who want to have their privacy respected. In recent years, AT&T has made it very clear the company wants a paradigm whereby opting out of snoopvertising and tracking will cost you more, effectively making privacy a luxury line item (not great for a country already in a broadband affordability crisis).
AT&T already tried some variation of this idea once, and it wasn’t just “discounts for ads.” The company spent several years charging its broadband subscribers up to $500 more (!) per year to opt out of its snoopvertising systems. The kicker: it only opted you out of receiving behavioral ads, not out of being tracked. This was then passed off to consumers and the press as some kind of discount, when again it was simply making privacy (more accurately the illusion of privacy) only possible with an additional charge.
The other problem, of course, is that this is AT&T. A government-pampered telecom monopoly with a very long history of talking a lot about innovation, then inevitably falling flat on its face once it actually attempts it. It’s also a company with a very long history of cozying up to the NSA, repeatedly violating consumer privacy, and undermining absolutely any effort whatsoever to craft even modestly serious privacy guidelines. It’s been particularly opposed to any privacy guidelines that would prohibit companies charging a surcharge for privacy protection.
This is all fairly important context Reuters’ scoop oddly fails to mention.
AT&T’s new pivot to ad-sponsored plans, which is still a year or two out, involves hoovering up an awful lot of location, viewing, and other data from the company’s wireless, broadband, phone, and TV customers. AT&T’s been a little slow to capitalize on all this data due to a heavy debt load, executive dysfunction, and an investor revolt, but the scope of what they’re building from a consumer tracking perspective should be fully understood:
“AT&T engineers are creating ?unified customer identifiers,? Stankey said. Such technology would allow marketers to identify users across multiple devices and serve them relevant advertising. The ability to fine tune ad targeting would allow AT&T to sell ads at higher rates, he said. AT&T has invested in developing targeted advertising on its own media properties using data from its phone, TV and internet customers, but the company has been ?slower in coming up the curve? on expanding its marketplace that allows advertisers to use AT&T data to target other media companies? audiences, Stankey said.”
AT&T policy folks and lobbyists have (with the GOP’s help) managed to convince a big chunk of DC and tech policy Twitter that when we talk about privacy, monopolization, and the health of the internet that “big tech” is the root of all evil. As a result we’re launching a slew of “antitrust inquiries” into “big tech,” while effectively gutting all meaningful oversight of telecom giants that have the same ad and consumer tracking ambitions but access to as much if not more data than the biggest Silicon Valley giants. I’m sure that kind of accountability vacuum and wholly asymmetrical tech policy won’t be a problem down the road though, right?