Comcast this week informed the FCC that it should be able to charge broadband users looking to protect their privacy more money. The FCC has been crafting some new privacy rules for broadband that would force ISPs to disclose exactly what they’re collecting and selling, while also providing working opt-out tools. But the FCC also wants to take aim at efforts by some ISPs to make privacy a premium option. AT&T, for example, charges its U-verse broadband customers significantly more if they want to opt out of snoopvertising.
In a new filing with the FCC (pdf), Comcast argues that charging consumers more money to opt out of snoopvertising should be considered a “perfectly acceptable” business practice.
“A bargained-for exchange of information for service is a perfectly acceptable and widely used model throughout the U.S. economy, including the Internet ecosystem, and is consistent with decades of legal precedent and policy goals related to consumer protection and privacy,” Comcast said in the filing. The company proceeds to claim that banning such options “would harm consumers by, among other things, depriving them of lower-priced offerings.”
In short, Comcast is arguing that protecting your own privacy should be a paid luxury option, and stopping them from doing so would raise broadband rates. But as we’ve noted for years it’s the lack of competition that keeps broadband prices high. It’s also the lack of competition that prevents users upset with broadband privacy practices from switching to another ISP. That’s why the FCC thinks some basic privacy rules of the road might be a good idea.
AT&T was the first major broadband provider to charge users more to protect their privacy when it launched its gigabit broadband service in Austin in late 2014. Users have to pay AT&T a $30 or more monthly premium if they want to opt out of AT&T’s “Internet Preferences,” a deep packet inspection program that tracks your browsing behavior around the Internet — down to the second.
But opting out of Internet Preferences can be a difficult option to even find if you’re a new customer, quite intentionally buried in a labyrinth of website menu options. And few are likely to choose it given it dramatically raises a customer’s monthly bill from between $531 and $800 the first year. AT&T has repeatedly tried to argue that they’re not charging users for basic privacy, they’re offering a “discount.”
The FCC reclassified ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act last year. After defeating the broadband industry’s court challenge of this move last June, the FCC is now looking to update legacy phone privacy rules in the act for the broadband era. Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and other large providers have repeatedly argued that privacy rules governing broadband connections are completely unnecessary.
In contrast, consumer advocates argue that the decision to make privacy an expensive luxury option — combined with Verizon and AT&T’s decision to covertly modify wireless user packets to track customers around the Internet — make it abundantly clear that the industry simply can’t be trusted to self-regulate on the privacy front without significant consumer harm.