AT&T payment plan further erodes privacy

Tommy Collison

The past year brought an unprecedented rise in discussions surrounding Internet freedom and consumer privacy, reflected in the upcoming FCC vote on net neutrality and Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ documentary on Edward Snowden and NSA surveillance. But while the Internet is an essential component of modern life, pitfalls remain as companies seek to monetize users’ personal information. The New York Times Bits blog reported last week that AT&T is charging customers an extra $29 a month to opt out advertisements tailored to users’ browsing data. The move is the latest example of Internet service providers monetizing users’ browsing habits and represents yet another worrying erosion of
consumer privacy.

The announcement comes as part of AT&T expanding its GigaPower Internet service in parts of Kansas City, Missouri in order to compete with Google Fiber. Consumers can pay an extra $29 a month to prevent AT&T from analyzing “the webpages you visit, the time you spend on each, the links or ads you see and follow, and the search terms you enter.” But despite offering customers a way to pay and opt out, AT&T still uses cookies to track user behavior and tailor ads.

Some claim that ad tracking is beneficial because the ads users see are tailored to their interests. While targeted advertisements may be useful in certain scenarios, such as looking for a good restaurant, when users search for sensitive information like health conditions, their browsers are tagged by some of the thousands of ad agencies who make money by tracking users across the web. It is clear why this practice carries inherent privacy concerns. In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that staples.com varied the price of its products depending on who was browsing its site. Customers could end up paying more for goods and services because websites are tracking their location. Consumers would rightly balk if a store clerk followed them around as they browsed a brick-and-mortar store, noting their actions and preferences, but seem to have passively accepted the notion that the same actions are acceptable when they happen online.

Giving people the option of paying for privacy is a regressive move that positions privacy as a luxury rather than a right. The rate of technological advancement far outstrips the ability to adapt and, as a result, lawmakers’ ability to regulate it. The Internet should not be yet another apparatus for private corporations to pad their bottom line. AT&T does not have to perform invasive behavioral tracking to make money considering over 100 million people pay to be wireless customers. As consumers become more concerned about privacy violations, AT&T must be more sensitive towards their users’ personal information.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 24 print edition. Email Tommy Collison at [email protected]

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