Deals with the data devil

AT&T charges $29 for privacy. Time for others to do the same

AT&T just rolled out blazing fast fiber-to-home internet service in Kansas City for $70 a month. But there’s a catch: customers who don’t want the telecom giant spying on their web surfing will have to pay an extra $29.

This is the same pay-for-privacy bargain that AT&T, which is competing with Google Fiber, first offered in Austin, Texas late in 2013. In marketing speak, the company explains that customers will get a better price if they offer up access to their data for use in internet advertising:

“When you select AT&T Internet Preferences, we can offer you our best pricing best pricing on GigaPower because you let us use your individual Web browsing information, like the search terms you enter and the web pages you visit, to tailor ads and offers to your interests.”

For consumers, there’s a lot to think about on both sides of the bargain. On one hand, at nearly $350 a year, the privacy option sure isn’t cheap.

But on the other hand, the discount requires consumers to give up a lot of data. Unlike with other ISPs, customers can’t thwart AT&T ‘s data collection through cookie settings or private browsing since the company is drawing the data right from their fiber connection. (To read more about the prospect of deep packet inspection and other technical aspects, see my colleague Stacey Higginbotham’s post from 2013).

There’s also the question of whether such a bargain should even exist. Is it really fair for AT&T to force consumers to make a deal-with-the-data-devil in the first place?

The answer is yes. While the choice between money and privacy appears stark, the internet has always worked this way. Google, Facebook and others have become giants by giving users a “free” service that, in reality, requires them to pay with their personal information instead.

All AT&T is doing is making the choice explicit, even as it runs the risk of stirring up outrage over making people pay for privacy.

In the future, let’s hope more companies start doing the same. I’ve long argued that it’s time for Facebook to start offering a paid option for its service that would give users more control of the service; I would gladly pay $5 a month or more to be free of the company’s smarmy “privacy check-ups” that purport to offer privacy, but that offer no opportunity to buy privacy from Facebook itself.

At a time when President Obama is contemplating new powers for the Federal Trade Commission to address the misuse of consumer data, it’s high time to consider pay-for-privacy as one of the solutions.

In the meantime, it’s unlikely many people are forking over an extra $29 for AT&T’s opt-out option. But at least the company has made it plain how the game works.

41 Responses to “AT&T charges $29 for privacy. Time for others to do the same”

  1. Facebook is optional. In many parts of the country the customer does not have any other option than AT&T for broadband connectivity, so your analogy between the two is misguided at best.

    A more suitable analogy would be to compare AT&T’s new tiered payment options to your mailman reading your mail, unless you decide to pay him a premium not to. And pricing the premium at a hefty 41% above the baseline price to do so.

  2. Its funny how people are getting upset at this. If they sold it as “$100 flate rate. discounted rate @ $70, but with the following T&Cs” I doubt anyone would complain. The fact that AT&T are actually telling people something that they didnt know (but probably should) should not be negatively viewed. If people think that the internet is “free” they are wrong, and quite naive. And ISPs charge for their service. But as we all know, people want things as cheaply as possible, so the AT&T marketing strategy makes sense – low upfront price, which increases with ‘add-ons’.

  3. Why should customers have to pay for privacy? Why so ISP be allowed to spy on customer use of their networks? If advertisers want to advertise, then they should find their own ways to do it and not rely on ISP’s spying on their customers.

  4. EnuffNews Actions Speak

    The asinine thought that AT&T is doing the citizenry a favor illustrates an arcane though process void of what it takes to truly bring this nation out of it Economic and Monopolistic malaise. The effect of a Congress and the Nation Infected with the blood sucking Southern Philosophy in which the Citizenry lives in blissful ignorance. Yo America, Get Your Brains Back.

    Enough Said – Actions Speak

  5. To answer the question about VPN restoring your privacy… I would imagine that would be against their terms of service. VPN usage would cost you 29 a month extra. This is about control and money. Once they establish control everything becomes extra charges just like cable.

  6. There’s a huge difference between dealing with a company like Google – who has always been upfront about their business model – as a choice and dealing with an ISP. ISPs which can provide decent service often have a monopoly in markets, or exist withi perhaps one other ‘competitor’. In other words – you don’t actually have much choice.
    This just shows why these companies should not only be classified as utilities but they should be forced to alllow competition to use their infrastructure, as is often done with utilities.
    Maybe this will wake up a lot of people who think the only company in the world who wants their data is Google.

  7. Given the concerns surrounding BYOD, and smartphones increasingly a part of IT enterprise mobility approach, UX benefits and data optimization with security (bit. ly/10Rr zAF) must have a value attached. And no, i don’t think every BYOD solution can rely on VPN to do official work, given the variety and depth of breaches in horizon. It’s not that it isn’t good, it isn’t enough :) – IDG blogger posting on behalf of PC Connection

  8. Keltypack

    I distrust everything about AT&T. They are one of the worst companies on Earth. When my cable provider announced that AT&T was taking over, I canceled my service IMMEDIATELY. I cannot and will not trust AT&T.

  9. Mo Ralintegrity

    Everyone that whines about Google is apparently too dumb to just run Adblock Plus/Ghostery/Disconnect. I don’t see ads ANYWHERE anymore. Quit being lazy. Besides your idea to pay for privacy is like legal blackmail, NOT cable tv.

  10. lol that’s horrible, you get charged more to not have your data raped?
    And you like this idea? That’s insane.
    ATT has no right to interact in any way with the data,they own the pipes and that’s it.
    Would you like the postal service to charge you extra not to read your mail? Or water company to charge you double if you don’t accept a shower cam?
    ATT isn’t offering a service ,they are just offering to not violate your basic civil effing rights. They are putting a knife at your throat and taking your money, it’s criminal.
    an you like it…..

    • They are competing against a google service that does not offer the option. I think they are being more open. They are saying if you want $70 service we can provide it the same way the others do, or you can pay more and get a service without the data selling. Same as cable TV, you can get the free channels and watch commercials or you can get pay for channels and get no commercials.

      I wish google search had the same option, where I could pay a monthly fee and then everything I search for would no longer turn up in Ads on every page

      • Herman Black

        Thats definitely not the same. Cable TV commercials do not misuse our data.
        AT&T definitely does misuse private data.
        I really can’t understand how people can support that.
        Kind of very strange society we are currently living in.

  11. Zachary Albrecht

    I hope like hell the government sees this as a clear method of invasion of privacy and that it costs a premium to not be snooped on. Maybe it’s time we break up the major telecoms again.

    • EnuffNews Actions Speak

      The only way the Government will see this as an invasion of privacy is when the People DEMAND that it do so. The asinine thought that AT&T is doing the citizenry a favor illustrates an arcane though process void of what it takes to truly bring this nation out of it Economic and Monopolistic malaise. The effect of a Congress and Nation Infected with the blood sucking Southern Philosophy in which the Citizenry lives in blissful ignorance. Yo America, Get Your Brains Back.

      Enough Said – Actions Speak

  12. uncle skippy

    Great Idea. Maybe the municipalities can get into the business too. They can root through your garbage, but for a modest fee, like $29 a month, they wont make available to marketers (or even the public) your dirty secrets, like the name of your credit card companies and mortgage companies and medical service providers and employers and child’s daycare, not to mention the specific content of those relationships.

    While I agree that offering the option would be a good idea. I would like to think my relationship with ATT is not for them to harvest my life for metadata but rather to connect my computer to content providers. To that end, I would be okay if ATT offered privacy as a opt-out rather than an opt-in. That is, charge me $99 per month for ISP (which is what their value proposition is to me) with an available $29 discount to allow them to search my email and porn viewing habits. Okay, if they want to make it an opt-out situation, I could be talked into that, but at the very least, their advertised price of *ISP service* should be $99 not $70.

    • Lonnie Langle

      That’s what I’m saying. They have access to the data either way; you’re just paying extra not to see the ads. I guess the consensus is if they can’t serve you ads then they won’t bother to mine the data… but product correlation and prediction data can still be valuable to advertisers. AT&T’s letter is carefully worded to say the advertiser doesn’t know your individual habits, but they leave open the prospect of correlating data and selling it regardless of who has paid extra.

  13. sunny jim

    As other commenters have said, there is a HUGE difference between services you can CHOOSE to sign up for i.e. Facebook and a ISP with no or little competition. A simple provider of internet has no business in snooping you for their own bottom line. Another reason why government eventually gets involved when, if the companies were ethical, regulation would not be needed.

  14. Notice the tag at the bottom “advertising”. This is why we need the “Separation of Church and State” in advertising. What you all just read was not a news story, it was an advertisement disguised as a news story.

    • Lynn Thomas

      It was tagged as “advertising ” among other thing because that is the subject of the article. It was also tagged AT&, facebook, and privacy. The article wasn’t any of thise things either.

  15. Donald Jacobs

    Mr. Roberts,

    I’m surprised that you think a fee for privacy is something more companies should do, let alone something that should exist at all.

    Worst though, I think you’re naïve to think that AT&T is going to provide anyone any privacy. Realistically, they are not offering a $29/month discount for privacy but instead inflating their normal cost by $29 a month to take advantage of the naïve and gullible – those that think “if I opt-out, AT&T won’t be tracking me and that makes it worth it to spend more.” No… just no. AT&T will track everything for every customer and sell any data they can to advertisers. The only difference is, by artificially paying $350 less per year, you get “tailored ads.”

    So, to summarize:
    A) Pay $70 per month – AT&T tracks everything, sells any data it can to advertisers, and provides you with tailored ads, or;
    B) Pay $99 per month – AT&T tracks everything, sells any data it can to advertisers, but does not provide tailored ads.

    This doesn’t even touch on the fact that, regardless of AT&T tracking the user or not, certain agencies will definitely be collecting that information, even warrantlessly. So users can artificially pay more such that AT&T “stays out of their business” but that doesn’t provide any more or less privacy then before.

  16. There is a big difference between an ISP snooping ALL your data, and a single service like google or facebook using whatever data you willingly give them. There is competition among those services, which helps keep them honest. ISPs generally face zero or near zero competition, so they’ll basically be as evil about this as they can possibly be. That “privacy fee” will just get bigger and bigger with time, while their profits get higher and higher. Because why not? What are you gonna do? Use a different provider? HA!

    • Actually, the advertisers (including Google, facebook and a bunch of companies you’ve never heard of) are tracking you across the web regardless if you have an account with them. Most websites have tracking codes of them. Part of these codes store a cookie on your machine, record your ip address and what page you were looking at. The next time you go to a website with the same tracking code they update the cookie. Know who you are by you unique ID and ip address, and keep track of that page view. Facebook and Google have their tracking codes on a large percentage of websites on the web (including this one). Most of these companies that do the tracking people have no relationship with at all. Plus, when you browse the web I wouldn’t say you are giving this data to Google or facebok even if you have an account with them.

  17. The VPN would result in a slowdown of speed as data is encrypted and rerouted. It’d give you privacy but defeat any purpose in having fiber optic internet since the connection would be limited to the speed at the other end of your VPN.

      • John Willkie

        Funny ‘dat. Hint: encryption (vpn) requires extra bits, and imposes delays in encryption and decryption. This is “simple physics and math.” That you noticed no “difference in my speed” is because you don’t know what you are doing: there would only be a “difference in speed” if you were already using all your available bandwidth before encryption. There IS a difference in “latency” (time for you to get content due to the encryption/decryption) but you lack the ability to measure that.

        I’m not saying that there is a significant difference; just that vpns involve latency delays and add measurable amounts of bits to your transmissions. You simply don’t know anything about what you are talking about.

  18. Stark choices indeed. If someone pays to be on a service, you want pay regular for that internet service. You should have degree of privacy with that cost being online rather than being mugged for personal data. Pay to be forgotten is free in Europe to a degree, we have pay for ours because it looks like next money making scheme for the carriers?

    • Yes + No. VPN would seriously degrade a gigabit connection (to that of the VPN’s server throughput). Proxy usage will not evade the ISP’s prying eyes. TOR would work. A TOR-lite needs to be invented, so that regional communities can shield themselves from being directly identified by answering each-others nearby requests.

  19. So.. buy VPN access for $60/year and encrypt all your traffic. These offerings will actually accelerate other people doing thesame, and we’ll have more private Internet. What’s the problem?