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.

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