When it comes to your Internet, how much are you really giving away when you search for… literally anything? Internet providers have access to mind-boggling amounts of data from individuals every day, and it’s almost impossible to understand just how much of that data is captured and then what insights can be gleaned from it. Very few people in this world are IT engineers or privacy advocates who could realistically understand what ISPs have access to and can do with that information. But the fact of the matter is: you shouldn’t have to be an engineer or professional privacy enthusiast to use a critical, non-optional service like the Internet.
Recently Comcast, the largest consumer ISP in the United States, told the FCC that they shouldn’t prohibit “business models offering discounts or other value to consumers in exchange for allowing ISPs to use their data.” In other words, Comcast wants to be able to offer two different plans: one for people who are “okay” with their data being harvested for outside use, that will be cheaper. And another plan for those who are not okay with their data being used, that will be more expensive.
Now, this isn’t a novel idea. AT&T is already essentially doing this in several markets, including right here in Austin, TX. Their “GigaPower” Internet service is provided at two different pricing levels. The “Standard Service” costs about $70 a month and lets AT&T track your browsing history and use what they learn from your habits for targeted advertising. And if you don’t want AT&T tracking what you do online, you can “opt-out” of that service and pay about $99 dollars/month.
So, what does this all mean? There’s certainly a good argument that people should be able to make an informed decision and to pay less money for less online privacy if they’re comfortable with that. In other words, letting the free market decide. AT&T frames their actions in that context by saying that the higher price is essentially making up for the advertising money they make on those that give up some privacy.
And that might be fine if not for the fact that Americans already pay a lot for what we get in terms of Internet access as American consumers. And it’s not because we are technologically backwards or because of the relative difficulty of getting Internet access to rural areas (though that’s also a problem). It’s because there is virtually no competition in the U.S. relative to other countries and that keeps prices high and speeds low.
So when the price of your Internet access is already higher than it should realistically be, it’s hard to swallow privacy being a “feature” that costs extra. And in reality, it’s just that privacy will be getting more expensive, not that the other version will be genuinely cheaper. Similar arguments were made when big ISPs started rolling out monthly data caps on consumer connections—no one’s bill actually went down if they stayed under the caps. They got the option to pay $50/month more to go back to the unlimited service they had before.
While most of us are presumably a little creeped out by giving large ISPs permission to track everything we do online, these “pricing plans” are doubly harmful to those already struggling to afford high-quality Internet access. In a world where Internet access is virtually unavoidable, no one should have to make the choice to give up their privacy to be able to afford a necessary service.
Let us know your thoughts and give us a call if you have any questions about your ISP and how to maintain your privacy on the Internet.