You have to give credit to the big ISPs – they are always looking for more ways to get money out of broadband and their other products. The latest innovative attempt comes from Comcast who told the FCC last week that they think they have the right to charge customers an extra fee for privacy. Comcast didn’t say that they were ready to launch this as a product, but was responding to an open investigation at the FCC over privacy.
You may recall that when AT&T announced gigabit service in Austin they charged $30 extra per month for privacy. That fee stops a user from undergoing AT&T’s ‘Internet Preferences’ – a deep-packet inspection process that tracks everything the customer does on the web.
Comcast says they have the right to charge extra for privacy and claimed that, “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,”
They basically claim that other companies already charge a premium fee to customers to avoid things they don’t like. There are numerous video and music services, for example, that charge extra to avoid advertising.
But an ISP is in a different situation. These other services provide something voluntary and customers are free to buy a video service like Hulu with or without ads or not buy Hulu at all. And Hulu can only know what a customer watches and does on their site and nowhere else on the web.
But it’s mandatory to go through an ISP to reach the web and your ISP can know every keystroke you make on the web, every site you visit, everything you tell people in emails or messaging. Comcast argues that customers are free to go to another ISP if they don’t like the company’s policies. But realistically, in most markets there are no alternatives. I know my only alternative to my 100 Mbps Comcast cable modem is a DSL connection under 20 Mbps from CenturyLink, which is not fast enough for me. And if Comcast and AT&T start making money with deep packet inspections, I have a hard time thinking that CenturyLink and other ISPs won’t do the same thing.
Customers can control their privacy to a degree on the web if that’s important to them. Many people only connect to web services like Google through a proxy server that strips out their IP address and location. And there are alternatives to using the Google search engine such as DuckDuckGo or Ixquick that don’t track people. And nobody makes you create an identity on social media sites.
But you have to put the Comcast filing at the FCC into context. The FCC has proposed that everybody has the right to privacy and that the default state for privacy should be that customers are not tracked. The FCC wants customers to opt-in to tracking, and certainly many people will elect to do that. There are plenty of people that like customized advertising and the other features that come from companies that track them. But there are plenty of people who do not want to be tracked in most cases, and almost nobody wants their ISPs to read their emails or correspondence with their doctors.
The big companies are sometimes their worse enemies because they do things without notifying their customers. Late last year, for example, Verizon admitted to using stealth cookies that could continue to track their wireless customers when they left the wireless ISP network.
This is going to be an interesting battle at the FCC and perhaps this will be the first real challenge of the new regulation under Title II rules. The FCC wants to now impose the same rules on the ISPs that have applied to years for telephone companies and voice – and which are allowed under the umbrella of Title II regulation. My bet on this issue is the FCC will prevail, but you know the big ISPs are never going to stop pushing the envelope.