Would you pay $30 a month for privacy online?

Posted at 11:16 AM, Mar 27, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-31 09:35:42-04

Would you pay for privacy online?

That’s the question AT&T is asking customers with a high speed Internet service called GigaPower. The service, currently available in a handful of markets in Texas, North Carolina, and Kansas City, offers customers a choice: If you want to keep your online data private, be ready to chalk up.

For about $70 a month, GigaPower customers can get a pretty fast home Internet connection, quick enough to download an HD movie in less than a minute or a TV show in less than three seconds.

But there’s a catch: Almost all user behavior online is tracked and used to present ads to them.

Customers who want to forgo AT&T’s ad-supported model and keep information like the search terms they enter into Google and the web pages they visit private have to pony up an additional $29 in monthly Internet costs.

In essence, GigaPower users trade data about their Internet use for a lower monthly bill and agreeing to online tracking and advertising.

While it may be alarming to some that privacy online can now be traded like a commodity, it shouldn’t be surprising says Lee Rainie, director of Internet, Science and Tecnnology Research at the Pew Research Center.

Consumers are “at least tacitly accepting the bargain that their information has value and is going to be used for advertising,” he says.

Yes, they may find online advertising annoying but, if you ask consumers what they would pay to remove it, Rainie says it wouldn’t be very much.

Pew’s research reflects Americans’ mixed and messy portrait of privacy. A November 2014 Pew report found that 91 percent of Americans feel like they’ve lost control of their personal data. Recent events like the hacking of Target and Home Depot have consumers more concerned about their privacy.

But there’s no crystal clear answer coming out of the public about what they want for themselves and what they want from policy makers and technology companies. Most  people, Rainie says, don’t fall easily into one privacy camp or another.

“There’s a bunch of people who would prefer not to share anything under any circumstances and be maximally private. There’s another share of people who will give away personal data for literally nothing,” Rainie says. “But the vast majority of people sit in the middle.”

Internet users have long traded their time on free online services like Google and Facebook in exchange for being tracked and advertised to.

Now internet service providers like AT&T and Verizon are trying something similar, using their access to customers web traffic to collect data that can be used for advertising.

Until recently, both companies employed so-called “super cookies” on their mobile networks, undeletable customer codes that allowed AT&T and Verizon to track their customers’ mobile Internet usage for advertising without their knowledge or an easy opt-out option.

After privacy advocates raised concerns about the practice, AT&T agreed to curtail its use of this technology last November. Verizon made a similar move in February after members of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation sent a letter to Verizon CEO Lowell C. McAdam criticizing the practice.

Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, a senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group, says these practices raise security and privacy concerns.

“Ideally, customers shouldn’t be in a battle with their ISPs for their privacy. ISPs should be on your side, helping you get a clean connection to the Internet, without interference and without tracking. Unfortunately, that’s not really the case today,” Hoffman-Andrews told DecodeDC.

When asked to respond to potential privacy concerns, AT&T spokesperson Gretchen Schultz told DecodeDC that the company never sells a GigaPower user’s personal information and that customers are free to opt out of the ad-supported option, called AT&T Internet Preferences, at any time.

The company’s documentation also states that the GigaPower service doesn’t track every single online click when a customer agrees to tracking. AT&T isn’t able, for example, to view any information that’s encrypted or shared over what’s called HTTPS, the protocol banks and retailers use to secure credit card information.

Schultz says AT&T users who opt out of the ad-supported Gigapower service can then call a company hotline to implement the change and verify the status of their account.

But the company’s privacy policy also reserves the right to “collect web browsing information for limited purposes such as communicating AT&T specific service updates, offers and promotions.”

“We offer U-verse with AT&T GigaPower customers some of the fastest Internet speeds available and do so in a way that ensures they have a clear choice,” Schultz says. “You reserve the right to change your mind at any time.”

Pew’s Rainie says that’s something most Americans will do when it comes to deciding what stays private online and what doesn’t.

“The broad point we’ve learned from all of our research which speaks to this question is that for many people, privacy is deeply context dependent,” Rainie says. “It isn’t on or off for people.”

“Show me what the facts are, show me what the bargain’s going to be, show me what the trade-offs are going to be, and most people are in a transactional state of mind,” he added.

That’s good news for companies like Verizon and AT&T.

Schultz tells DecodeDC that since offering the GigaPower service, the “vast majority” of its customers have elected to opt in to the ad-supported option.

AT&T plans to expand its GigaPower service to 11 additional markets, including parts of Atlanta, Chicago, Cupertino and Miami.

[Also by Marc Georges: The fight over net neutrality isn't over yet]

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