AT&T May Soon Return To Charging Broadband Subscribers More For Privacy

Last year, you might recall that AT&T came up with an ingenious idea: to charge broadband customers significantly more if they actually wanted to protect their own privacy. It basically worked like this: users ordering AT&T's broadband service could get the service for, say, $70 a month. But if that user wanted to opt out of AT&T's Internet Preferences snoopvertising program (which used deep packet inspection to study your movement around the Internet down to the second) users were forced to pay upwards of $800 more each year. With its decision, AT&T effectively made user privacy a premium service.

AT&T backed off this idea after massive backlash, in part because the former, Wheeler-run FCC had started raising a stink about the practice, but also because it wanted regulatory approval for its $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner.

But after successfully lobbying the GOP to kill FCC broadband consumer privacy protections (which would have let the FCC crack down on these kinds of practices on a case-by-case basis), AT&T is apparently considering bringing the program back.

Speaking last week on C-SPAN's The Communicators program, AT&T Senior Vice President Bob Quinn acknowledged that AT&T's first attempt to charge more for privacy didn't go over all that well:

Quinn suggested that the company may try again to roll out that type of pricing structure. "We got an enormous amount of criticism from privacy advocates when we rolled out, in Austin, Texas, an ad-supported Internet service... Privacy advocates screamed about that," Quinn said.

But that was then, and this is now. With FCC privacy protections dead, AT&T lobbyists have shifted their gaze toward killing net neutrality, and shoveling all regulatory oversight of broadband duopolies to an over-extended and ill-equipped FTC. An FTC, we should reiterate, AT&T lawyers have been making very clear they believe has no real authority over AT&T's businesses.

With pesky regulatory oversight now likely out of the way, Quinn makes it clear in the interview he'd like to now revisit the idea of a privacy surcharge, which he claims would somehow provide users with more control over their privacy:

"He added, however, that he believes attitudes will change in the future. "As the privacy revolution evolves, I think people are going to want more control, and maybe that's the pricing model that's ultimately what consumers want."

Right, except again, consumers have made it repeatedly clear they don't want this. AT&T has consistently tried to claim that this is all just "ad-supported internet service" and that charging users more money to protect their privacy was somehow a "discount," since users who were opted in to snoopvertising by default ultimately paid less than consumers that didn't. But as people noted at the time, finding the option to opt out was obnoxiously cumbersome, and the fact you'd pay $800 just to not be tracked was heavily obfuscated by the company.

Yes, many consumers would likely happily pay less money for broadband if ISPs offered a genuine discount for being tracked and monetized. But that's never been what AT&T offered, and since it faces limited competition in many markets -- it has minimal incentive to actually offer it. What AT&T is effectively doing here is making privacy protection a luxury option. And with every indication that AT&T's about to face weaker regulatory oversight than ever -- there's zero incentive for AT&T to offer any program that truly provides consumer benefits. It should, however, be amusing to watch AT&T try and pretend otherwise.

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