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.