AT&T Stops Charging Broadband Users Extra For Privacy

from the privacy-is-a-luxury-option dept

A few years ago, AT&T came up with an "ingenious" idea: charge broadband consumers more money if they want to protect their privacy. Under this plan, users ordering AT&T's U-Verse broadband service could get broadband for, say, $70 a month. But if you want to opt out of AT&T's Internet Preferences program (which uses deep packet inspection to study your movement around the Internet down to the second) you'll pay $30 to $50 more, per month. AT&T also made opting out as cumbersome as possible, knowing full well that few people would dare take the option.

With its decision, AT&T effectively made user privacy a luxury option.

After years of this behavior, AT&T suprisingly proclaimed last week that it would be eliminating the privacy surcharge and its Internet Preferences behavioral advertising service completely this month:
"To simplify our offering for our customers, we plan to end the optional Internet Preferences advertising program related to our fastest Internet speed tiers," an AT&T spokesperson confirmed to Ars today. "As a result, all customers on these tiers will receive the best rate we have available for their speed tier in their area. We’ll begin communicating this update to customers early next week."
Why the sudden AT&T about-face? While AT&T claims it's just concerned about "simplicity," the real reason is because the FCC is considering some basic privacy protections for broadband users, who often can't vote against bad behavior with their wallet thanks to the lack of competition in the broadband space. AT&T's decision to issue a surcharge for privacy was one of the primary reasons the FCC began the privacy rulemaking proceeding. AT&T's lobbyists and lawyers clearly hope that if they eliminate this controversial program, they'll be more easily able to argue that broadband privacy rules aren't necessary.

Broadband ISPs have consistently tried to argue that consumer broadband privacy protections aren't necessary because carriers are fantastic at self-regulating on this front. Yet time and time again they've proven that's simply not the case. Verizon, for example, proclaimed in 2008 that broadband privacy protections weren't necessary because "public shame" would keep the company on its best behavior. Fast forward to 2014 and Verizon was caught covertly modifying user wireless data packets to track customer behavior around the internet -- without notifying consumers or offering working opt-out tools.

It took security researchers two years before they even discovered what Verizon was doing. It took another six months before Verizon was even willing to provide customers with working opt-out tools. That's fairly consistently what "self regulation" on the broadband privacy front looks like.

While they've been portrayed by ISPs as mammoth overreach, the FCC's proposed broadband privacy rules are relatively basic, simply requiring that ISPs are completely transparent about what they're collecting and selling, while requiring ISPs also provide working opt-out tools. ISPs, eagerly hoping to compete with Google and Facebook on the advertising front (see Verizon's acquisitions of AOL and Yahoo), don't want any regulations that put them at a competitive disadvantage, arguing the playing field should be level as they eye billions in new advertising revenues.

The problem with that argument is that while internet users can choose not to use Facebook and Google, they all-too-often have no such luxury when it comes to broadband. So while regulations aren't entirely ideal, there's an argument that (like net neutrality rules) they're necessary until we can get something vaguely resembling competition established in the broadband space. Until that happens, and without meaningful privacy protections, there's absolutely nothing preventing AT&T's next "great idea" from being aggressively worse.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Oct 2016 @ 6:19am

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Oct 2016 @ 6:32am

    "Broadband ISPs have consistently tried to argue that consumer broadband privacy protections aren't necessary because carriers are fantastic at self-regulating on this front. Yet time and time again they've proven that's simply not the case."

    The markets are self regulating they said, no need for government intervention they said.

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

    • icon
      Mattheus (profile), 4 Oct 2016 @ 7:27am

      Re:

      "The markets are self regulating they said, no need for government intervention they said."

      Markets do regulate, but there's no market here. It's a locked-up duopoly. You can't expect the homeostatic powers of competitive markets to apply to firms in a cartel.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Oct 2016 @ 10:45am

        Re: Re:

        Oh - of course ... semantics salad .. there is no market - lol

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Oct 2016 @ 10:51am

        Re: Re:

        "Markets do regulate"

        Yes, they do regulate a few things
        1) crappy wages
        2) horrible health care
        3) ridiculous work schedules

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

        • identicon
          Wendy Cockcroft, 5 Oct 2016 @ 6:11am

          Re: Re: Re:

          To be fair, when the odds aren't stacked against either the demand-side or the supply-side, the market can and does address wages, health care, and work schedules.

          The trouble is, the odds have been increasingly stacked against the demand-side for decades and it's getting worse. Regulations are supposed to exist to address such imbalances but to be honest I find they're increasingly being used to create them. Regulatory capture is THE issue in restricted markets. It would take legislation at the national level to crowbar the moneyed interests out of local politics in order to permit the competition required to free up the market.

          In the case of healthcare I understand that Medicaid for all competing with local private providers on service would resolve the healthcare costs problem. I'd also get patents off of medicine and medical equipment.

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

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 4 Oct 2016 @ 7:42am

      Re:

      AT&T's removal of this luxury price for privacy, in order to prevent privacy rules for broadband, is the best evidence that such rules are necessary.

      Dear AT&T: If you're not going to violate users' privacy, then why would you be against rules against violating users' privacy?

      Also: If you're not going to secretly harvest customers' organs in the night, then why would you be against rules against secretly harvesting customers' organs in the night?

      If customers are unhappy with AT&T's harvesting of their vital organs, can't they use binding arbitration? And the market is self regulating, they can just choose a competitor that harvests fewer of your organs.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Oct 2016 @ 6:35am

    There is no conceivable way AT&T is providing its customers additional privacy without regulator action. They're almost certainly still recording and selling the data.

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

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 4 Oct 2016 @ 6:47am

    The mere threat of scrutiny and regulation made some ISPs start behaving more properly. And people keep saying regulation is a burden.. Yeah.

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

  • icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 4 Oct 2016 @ 6:53am

    The problem with that argument is that while internet users can choose not to use Facebook

    they can't choose not to have Facebook build a shadow profile on them.

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

  • icon
    BentFranklin (profile), 4 Oct 2016 @ 7:20am

    ...don't want any regulations that put them at a competitive disadvantage

    They are already at a competitive advantage, being that they control the tubes.

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

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 4 Oct 2016 @ 7:39am

    Not even an option anymore

    I didn't read anything in their statement about privacy being an option. Only that they will stop charging extra for it.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2016 @ 6:43am

    Consumer broadband protection ISN'T neccessary.

    Incarcerating CEO's for illegal wiretaps would do the job adequately I'm sure. But that would put a cramp on the next election cycles donations.

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


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