AT&T is offering its customers an interesting new broadband option: Sign up for its gigabit fiber service in a handful of cities and pay $99 a month, or pay just $70 and let AT&T track your browsing habits and send you targeted ads.
AT&T made the offer this week when it announced that gigabit service would be available in the Kansas City area, and it could well be the first of many similar choices consumers in other cities face in the not-too-distant future.
I'll say this for AT&T: It's not hiding what it's doing. The company laid out exactly how much privacy customers forfeit — and it's not insignificant.
AT&T says it will track "the webpages you visit, the time you spend on each, the links or ads you see and follow, and the search terms you enter." However, it will not collect information from banks or encrypted sites that collect credit card information used to make purchases. The information will be used to send you ads based on what you've been looking at online. For example, "[i]f you search for concert tickets, you may receive offers and ads related to restaurants near the concert venue," AT&T says.
The company also says that those offers may come in the form of online ads, direct mail or email, which means you'll likely get even more spam than you do already.
You might be thinking that you can have your blazing speed and privacy too by simply using cookie and tracking blockers, but AT&T thought of that and won't let you. "AT&T Internet Preferences works independently of your browser's privacy settings regarding cookies, do-not-track, and private browsing," the company says. "If you opt-in to AT&T Internet Preferences, AT&T will still be able to collect and use your Web browsing information independent of those settings."
For what it's worth, AT&T also says it "will not sell your personal information to anyone, for any reason. Period." Sounds good, but those ads come from third parties and their ad networks, so that privacy wall might not be high enough to keep your personal information from those partners.
The Kansas City deployment isn't the first time AT&T offered to purchase privacy from its broadband customers; the company made a similar offer when it launched its high-speed service in Austin in late 2013.
There is a positive bit of news in all this that has nothing do with privacy. Competition is finally thawing out the broadband market. There are so few major broadband providers in the United States that we’ve been burdened with service that is slower and more expensive than similar service in Europe and Asia.
Google already deployed gigabit fiber service in Kansas City, and now AT&T wants to go mano a mano. Gigabit service is many times faster than what most of us have today, and it appears that Google forced AT&T to offer a competitive service.
Google is moving to bring gigabit fiber service to other cities, and it looks like AT&T is too, despite its threat to stop expanding broadband service if the FCC starts regulating Internet service as a way to guarantee net neutrality.
It will be very interesting to see how many of AT&T's customers are willing to trade privacy for ultra-fast connections and $29 a month, and you may well see this twenty-first century version of Hobson's choice in other cities.