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
    teka, 28 Sep 2020 @ 4:56am

    Re: Wait...isn't this a good thing?

    The conversation is being shifted to whether we want it dry or lubed so they can skip the part where they ask us to bend over.


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