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