Is your online privacy worth a speedier Internet connection? AT&T seems to think so.
As a part of its gigabit fiber rollout in Austin, Texas, the carrier is offering a $70 “Premier” service that’s $30 cheaper than the standard package. The catch? Signing up for the service means agreeing to let AT&T track what you search for, what sites you visit, and even how long you stay on them.
Here’s how AT&T puts it:
When you select AT&T Internet Preferences, we can offer you our best pricing on U-verse with 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.
In other words, AT&T says it’s subsidizing the cost of the faster Internet speeds by tracking customers’ browsing data and serving them directly to advertisers.
This, the company says, won’t result more ads, but rather in more targeted ones — both online and by mail. To use AT&T’s example, customers who search for concert tickets may see advertisements for restaurants near the concert venue. (This won’t extend to secure or encrypted sites, the company says.)
While these sorts of targeted ads are clearly the future of online advertising, it’s unsettling to see an ISP like AT&T try its hand at them as well.
Then again, perhaps this isn’t so unique: Services like Gmail and Facebook are only free because users are trading their private data for access to them. “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product,” as the saying goes.
But what AT&T is doing isn’t a perfect analog to what Google does. For one, if a user isn’t comfortable with Google tracking their searches, they can easily switch to rivals like Bing or DuckDuckGo. AT&T’s tracking, in contrast, seems to extend to all user traffic. (Want to opt out? “That’s OK. You can change at any time, but this may result in a price difference,” AT&T says.)
Moreover, AT&T appears to be using deep-packet inspection, which means that it circumvents browser-level settings like Do Not Track and private browsing.
So the big question is: Is saving $30 really worth it if it costs you your online privacy?