Broadband

by Karl Bode


Filed Under:
broadband, paying for privacy, privacy

Companies:
at&t, comcast, itif



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.

Reader Comments

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Aug 2016 @ 6:41am

    If you exploit people's rights that should be respected by default, then you are not pro-anything involving those people or their rights. Claiming to be so is not just dishonest, it's downright lying and insulting.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 Aug 2016 @ 8:27am

      Re:

      ...You've seen the way politics works in the US, right? Congresscritters and Senators spend nearly half their time tryingt o get money from their constituents. So this bullshit gets to fly so high.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 16 Aug 2016 @ 6:45am

    I'll pay more for more privacy.

    However, it seems like extortion to pay my broadband company for more privacy, that they are invading and ask them to stop spying on me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Aug 2016 @ 6:50am

    to pay more to protect their piracy

    I think that certain industries might complain loudly, and rush to court if any ISP offered that option. :-)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Aug 2016 @ 6:53am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 Aug 2016 @ 7:13am

      Re:

      Calling for strict regulation is likely to be counterproductive though - as noted in the article and elsewhere, part of the reason for limited choices is regulatory capture - which is enabled by having lots of regulations that keep out startups.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        David, 16 Aug 2016 @ 7:22am

        Re: Re:

        Things like this are more fodder for the "Encrypt Everywhere" movement. It's more up to us, as providers of things for users, to insure our traffic is encrypted between us and the user. That is about the only true way to thwart this nonsense.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Karl Bode (profile), 16 Aug 2016 @ 10:49am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 16 Aug 2016 @ 7:56am

      Re:

      "I can easily see them claim they just anonymized the USER ID from their database, but left all of the other tracking in place."

      And let's not forget that even aggressive and sincere attempts at anonymization have yet to actually work.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Capt ICE Enforcer, 16 Aug 2016 @ 7:00am

    Nobel agenda

    I am sure the money made will go straight to the lower tiered employees as pay raises. Helping to stimulate the economy, along with infrastructure improvement through out the US rural areas to actually get speeds over 25 MB and not to the top executives pocketbooks.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 Aug 2016 @ 9:10am

      Re: Nobel agenda

      improvement through out the US rural areas to actually get speeds over 2.5 MB and not to the top executives pocketbooks.

      FTFY - you forgot the decimal point

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    scotts13 (profile), 16 Aug 2016 @ 7:09am

    If they're "giving us a discount" in exchange for being spied upon, they should be required to use the non-discount price in their advertising.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 16 Aug 2016 @ 7:57am

      Re:

      Yes, this.

      It's not a "discount" when its a surcharge.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Karl Bode (profile), 16 Aug 2016 @ 10:50am

        Re: Re:

        I've followed this industry for most of my adult life and I can't remember EVER seeing an ISP actually lower your bill in exchange for having data collected and monetized. It just doesn't happen, there's no competitive incentive.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Aug 2016 @ 8:09am

    Might Work

    Comcast has a significant chance at succeeding, because society is infected with a click and agree sheeple cancer. Symptoms include the existence of user hostile sites (Facebook comes to mind) and DRM in any form.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 Aug 2016 @ 8:27am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Aug 2016 @ 8:13am

    In the context of Comcasts usual behaviour, this IS pro consumer

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Industrial IT, 16 Aug 2016 @ 8:23am

    Broadband

    I know this might be slightly off topic, but all I keep hearing with regards to broadband is how fast this new fibre optic broadband is. How much quicker is it to normal broadband and is it definitely worth getting?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 Aug 2016 @ 8:29am

      Re: Broadband

      Is this sarcasm? Or do you just not know what speeds are available or what a megabit per second means?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Karl Bode (profile), 16 Aug 2016 @ 10:51am

      Re: Broadband

      Depends. Fiber has faster top speeds upwards of 1 to 10 Gbps, much faster than cable or DSL. It's also cheaper to maintain and more reliable that coax or DSL. But it also depends on how much speed you need. For many, 25 to 100 Mbps is more than enough (for now).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Aug 2016 @ 8:51am

    Sounds like a great secret plan to me:

    "forcing broadband consumers to pay more to protect their *piracy* is secretly a "pro consumer" position"

    Subliminal typo, no doubt...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    coandco, 16 Aug 2016 @ 9:37am

    Protect piracy?

    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 piracy


    Should "piracy" be "privacy" here?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    limbodog (profile), 16 Aug 2016 @ 10:00am

    Pro-Consumer

    If it doesn't already exist, I'm coining a new phrase: "Corporate Narcissism." It's what makes corporations unable to see how anything they do could possibly be wrong, or viewed as wrong by a sane person.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Hephaestus (profile), 16 Aug 2016 @ 10:27am

    How is this not the equivalent of a phone company recording your phone conversations without a warrant, and how does this not violate wiretapping laws? Deep packet inspection allows them to see what you are saying on blogs, in messaging web apps, etc, if it is not encrypted via https.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Thad, 16 Aug 2016 @ 11:43am

    Big Brother is watching

    WAR IS PEACE
    FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
    COMCAST IS PRO-CONSUMER

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Aug 2016 @ 12:42pm

    and pay or not, there's about as much chance of our info being protected and private as there is of me being a spaceman!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Padpaw (profile), 16 Aug 2016 @ 6:21pm

    I have no doubt comcast will screw up even this in their obvious desire to make their customer's experience the worst it possibly can be simply because they have no where else to go.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Reasonable Coward, 16 Aug 2016 @ 6:25pm

    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

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 Aug 2016 @ 10:03pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Reasonable Coward, 17 Aug 2016 @ 3:25am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Aug 2016 @ 4:22am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 17 Aug 2016 @ 7:29am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      The Wanderer (profile), 18 Aug 2016 @ 5:58am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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