Blogs & Comment

Why we should be able to pay for better privacy online

Privacy ought to be treated as a right, but offering premium "untracked" accounts would be a start

Young woman checking a smartphone in a large public space

(Tang Ming Tung)

AT&T is wading into controversy by announcing that it will give customers of its new U-verse GigaPower broadband service some extra privacy—for a fee.

Regular pricing on the service starts at $70 a month, but that includes something called “Internet Preferences,” which means the company will serve up targeted ads to users based on their location, browsing history and other data.

Getting exempted from those ads will cost an additional $29 a month, or almost $350 a year.

The move is sure to draw criticism, since it’s somewhere between a form of negative-option billing and double-dipping – but it could be a good thing in the long run.

While companies such as Google and Facebook use members’ data to serve up ads, their services are free to use. Customers giving up their data is the understood tradeoff – or payment – that drives the transaction.

On the other hand, AT&T is already charging customers for a service that has been expected to include privacy since its inception, or even longer depending on the interpretation. Internet access is, after all, telecommunications, a service that supposedly has privacy rights and legal protections built into its DNA.

Imagine if AT&T or another provider tried the same with phone service, where a basic landline costs X dollars a month, but there’s an extra fee if you don’t want anyone listening in to your calls. Howls of outrage would surely follow.

Here in Canada, Bell has stirred similar controversy. The company’s relevant advertising program works much the same way as AT&T’s, although Bell isn’t charging for exemption (yet). The company is, however, including customers by default – it’s up to individual subscribers to opt out.

Privacy experts such as University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist say this sort of data collection is offside:

The combined power of financial data, location information, and internet usage gives Bell a remarkably detailed profile of its users. While the company does not disclose the information to third parties, its use of the information still triggers Canadian privacy law. The full profile represents an enormous amount of personal information, which is why the company’s opt-out approach leaves millions of Canadians with inadequate privacy protections.

Some commentators are cheering AT&T’s U-verse privacy move because it’s at least a step in the right direction, even if it is an expensive one.

Jeff John Roberts over on Gigaom, for example, suggests internet companies such as Facebook should sell paid versions of their services that offer better privacy protection.

It’s not a bad idea. While privacy should be a basic right for everyone, and indeed it used to be, offering it for a fee might be a good first step toward re-establishing that norm.

AT&T’s $29 charge is steep, but it could kick off an arms race of sorts for privacy services that could ultimately lead to lower prices and better protections for all.

Imagine if Google, for example, answered the challenge and decided to sell some sort of privacy service—perhaps even a paid search option that doesn’t track and store user data.

If that happened, how long until Facebook and others followed suit?

The idea of paying more for privacy is unusual and would require a major shift to current thinking, but it might not be a bad deal in the grand scheme of things if it leads to keeping companies and governments out of our business.