AT&T Ends Snooping Program, Stops Charging Internet Users Extra For Privacy

Image courtesy of Mike Mozart

AT&T offers GigaPower subscribers in several cities two options: pay $70 for your connection and get your data snooped on, or keep your privacy and pay $99. The company has regularly defended the program from critics, and claimed that it’s basically the wave of the future. And yet today, seemingly out of nowhere, A&T has suddenly announced that it will be dropping the option nationwide, and charging all consumers the same — lower — price.

Ars Technica reports today that AT&T has confirmed it is, indeed, scrapping the program.

We have to admit, we’re pretty surprised — in a good way, to be sure. As recently as yesterday we were writing stories about AT&T executives lamenting the uneven playing field if they are not allowed to do as they like with your data.

The company first launched Internet Preferences in 2013. When it brought GigaPower service to the area, it told customers they could get service for as little as $70 per month — if subscribers let AT&T snoop on their internet use history and sell that data for targeted advertising. Customers who opted to keep their private data private were charged $99, about 40% more.

AT&T continued to offer Internet Preferences as it expanded GigaPower to new cities through 2014, 2015, and this year. Although charging an extra $30 per month for privacy is basically as literal and clear an example of pay-for-privacy as you could come up with, AT&T has always objected to that framing, instead saying that the lowered price in return for data was a “benefit to the consumer” and in fact opened up access by dropping price points. (As to the counter-argument — that doing so makes privacy a luxury for higher-income subscribers only, and screws over lower-income folks — AT&T didn’t seem to have an answer.)

AT&T told Ars that it will “sunset the Internet Preferences program beginning in October,” but didn’t add much more explanation after that. We checked in with an AT&T representative, who confirmed the October deadline and that customers will drop to “the current lowest price available for their market.” That price is lower in cities with competition than in cities without, granted, but it does mean that customers who want to keep their privacy will see their bills drop sometime soon.

As to why, AT&T only said that it has been trying to make things “more simple for customers, and this is being done in the spirit of that.” A cynic could be forgiven, though, for wondering if it has something to do with the ISP privacy rule the FCC is considering.

That rule, if approved, would basically a set of restrictions on what data internet providers can collect, store, and share about their customers’ use of the service — similar to existing restrictions on telephone and cable companies. The rule is wildly unpopular among ISPs, which claim, among other things, that limiting their ability to charge consumers for privacy actually hurts consumers.

AT&T’s program was the first high profile pay-for-privacy scheme among ISPs. If it no longer exists, that may grease the wheels that help it avert oh-so-hated regulation.