Senator Blumenthal Warns AT&T Not To Make Wireless Privacy A Luxury Option

from the the-illusion-of-value dept

Last week, we discussed how outlets like Reuters were making a big stink about a new proposal by AT&T to dole out "wireless discounts for advertising." Granted as we pointed out then, that's not really what AT&T has in mind. AT&T for years has been trying to craft a new industry paradigm whereby users who opt in to user surveillance and targeted ads pay one price, and those that opt out to protect their privacy pay significantly more.

It's something the company already has experimented with. AT&T for years charged its broadband subscribers up to $500 more annually to opt out of behavioral ads (but not data collection and tracking). AT&T, in effect, was trying to make the illusion of privacy a luxury option. It only stopped while it was attempting to gain regulatory approval for its merger with Time Warner.

AT&T says its latest wireless "discounts" are still a year or more out, but the company carefully leaked word of them to Reuters, hoping (successfully as it turns out) the outlet wouldn't include essential context.

Senator Richard Blumenthal appears to have noticed what AT&T was up to however, and sent AT&T CEO John Stankey a letter (pdf) asking for more details on what AT&T has planned, and warning the company not to try and make privacy something consumers have to shell out significantly more money for:

"AT&T should not hold privacy above consumers’ heads for additional cost. Rather than a benefit, it is clear that AT&T is seeking to legitimize more intrusion into consumers’ lives and more aggressively commoditize subscribers. AT&T’s announcement would create a “pay-forprivacy” standard in the increasingly consolidated phone market, driving prices up for those who want to opt out. You also acknowledge that an ad-supported wireless plan would cross-fertilize its AT&T data broker and ad targeting products, adding to the race to the bottom that exists in the internet ecosystem."

The problem of course is that AT&T's already framed the debate and prepared the press to call this a "discount," even though that's absolutely not what this is. AT&T has also lobbied (quite successfully) to crush nearly every attempt at a federal or state privacy law, however modest. Especially if proposed legislation involves any restrictions on charging consumers a premium to opt out of data collection and monetization. And because AT&T lobbyists have also successfully lobotomized the FCC, don't expect regulators to inject themselves into the equation any time soon.

That leaves you relying on the wisdom and power of "the market" to organically inhibit the idea of privacy as a luxury option. But because the DOJ and FCC just rubber stamped the Sprint/T-Mobile merger, there will soon be fewer competitors than ever, meaning less incentive to behave. And because consumers (thanks to the press) will genuinely view this as a "discount," that means limited pressure on an already dysfunctional and overwhelmed Congress. That leaves you waiting on AT&T's incompetence to derail such an effort. And while that's certainly possible given recent AT&T history, that's neither a guarantee nor the way you craft effective national privacy safeguards.

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Filed Under: fees, pay for privacy, privacy, richard blumenthal
Companies: at&t

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  1. identicon
    Reasonable Coward, 26 Sep 2020 @ 2:15pm

    Re: Re: Re: No, no it is not

    First let me address the "pinkie promise" issue. Yes, I agree that it's a matter of trust, and ISPs haven't earned a lot of trust. For the purpose of this discussion, let's assume that they honor that commitment, because if they don't, then we would both agree that paying extra to obtain some measure privacy, and then having that contract violated, is 100% bad.

    I disagree with your characterization of my question, because what I am claiming is simply that AT&T offering an option for paid privacy is better than them not offering that option at all. It seems that you don't like either option, which I accept, and can somewhat understand. But what I can't understand is why offering this option isn't seen as a good thing, since some people (maybe not you) who do care about privacy now have a choice, whereas other ISPs don't offer such a choice.

    In other words, if AT&T didn't offer paid privacy, then this Techdirt article wouldn't have been written. Now they offer the option, and suddenly this is an example of badness? How? Why isn't the article about how Comcast, Verizon, et al are bad for not offering any option to improve privacy at any price, whereas AT&T does offer one?

    I think what is going on here is that many of us are infuriated by the lack of privacy in technology, but it's an easy thing to ignore, until something like this AT&T thing comes up. And then it resurfaces the issue and gives us a chance to gripe again. So AT&T is taking the brunt of our anger, even though in this case, they are actually offering something better than, say, my ISP, which is Verizon.

    You keep bringing up the matter of Facebook and Google being different than an ISP. That is true, but beside my point. I only brought up Facebook and Google as a way of relating that I would be interested in seeing paid privacy options on those platforms.

    The fact that I can't avoid my ISP (save for VPN/Tor) doesn't relate to my main point, which again, is that having an option is better than not having one.

    At the risk of trivializing the matter, let me use a pizzeria analogy. Let's say you prefer a gluten-free diet, and there's a pizzeria that has never sold gluten-free pizzas. One day they start offering a new gluten-free crust, but those gluten-free pizzas will cost $5 more. Isn't it an improvement that they started offering this option, even though it costs more, and even though you personally might find the $5 too high a price?

    As to your point about quality testing (QA): This already happens. It's called an extended warranty, and you pay more to get a longer warranty. And it's basically the same thing as with the privacy issue, in that we would all hope that companies would stand behind their products with a nice, long, standard warranty included in the price, but this rarely happens, and so instead we get short warranties and have to pay extra for an extended warranty. Not ideal, but better than being given a short warranty with no option for an extended warranty.

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