AT&T Shakes Down Customers with Pay-for-Privacy Option

by Matt Klassen on February 25, 2015

AT&T has responded to the controversy surrounding the wireless service industry’s widespread use of “super cookies” to track, record, and compile information on users’ search and browsing habits, but in way that seems tantamount to yet another slap in the face for privacy advocates. Ma Bell has promised not to track, record, or sell user information if…wait for it…you pay the company an additional $29/month.

When users sign up for AT&T burgeoning GigaPower Internet service they have the option of paying the regular $70/month with the tacit understanding that they agree to have their location, search habits, and browsing history tracked and recorded for advertising purposes. If users feel like they need a little more privacy, however, well they can pay an additional $29/month for the privilege of not being monitored.

It’s a classic example of pretending to offer users a choice by subtly threatening to take away something they thought they already had; in this case, privacy. But according to AT&T, it’s not about charging more for people who want to avoid seeing targeted advertising wrought from data mining of their online habits, it’s about giving a discount to those who want to see more personal, useful advertising. So if you thought you couldn’t put a price on personal privacy…well you’d be wrong.

Like a shake down by the mob or perhaps the local bully at school, it’s best not to think of this as payment for protecting yourself, instead AT&T has worded this entire debacle the other way around, using its own bizarro logic to explain that users who opt to see more helpful targeted advertisings will receive a discount, like paying the local thugs for protection I guess.

AT&T is clearly not stupid though, as by wording this as a discount and promising that users will see more helpful, personal advertising, most of the early adopters of the company’s high speed Internet service have opted for the ad-supported model, AT&T spokesperson Gretchen Schultz told the E-Commerce Times.

But is there really a choice when the opt-out actually will cost users a significant amount of money? Consider that over the course of a year users concerned with their privacy will pay AT&T $348 dollars extra for the privilege of not being tracked and recorded. Further, for that extra money (which many AT&T customers in America likely can’t afford to spend on maintaining privacy, whether they want to or not) users don’t see less advertising, just generalized advertising, meaning less helpful but just as annoying.

Again, AT&T’s plan here is to make the targeted tracking option the most appealing choice, both by the fact it will save people money and by making the opt-out option as annoying as possible.

Now some analysts see this as a positive for the wireless market and consumers alike, as it is one way AT&T can establish differentiation in the marketplace, attracting customers who want to save money yet who really don’t care that every company is recording, compiling, and selling information about their online habits. This offers wireless users a choice…if you can even call it that.

To assuage concerns about online habits, AT&T has made it abundantly clear that it doesn’t record sensitive online information, particularly anything from encrypted websites. That means your credit card information and other such vital data remains safe. What isn’t safe, however, is everything else.

It’s a damning critique of the wireless industry, though, that when AT&T brings pay-for-privacy to the marketplace it is lauded as an innovator, a pioneer for consumer choice. Now granted information gathering is what makes our smart devices ‘smart,’ but how far have things gone off the rails if privacy conscious individuals now have to pay for the right to protect their information? A gross injustice indeed.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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