One of the nation’s largest providers of high-speed internet service wants you pay more to keep them from tracking what you search on the web, a practice that concerns federal officials and privacy experts.
AT&T’s plan requires metro Atlanta customers of its high-speed gigabit service to allow the company to track their web searches in exchange for a discounted price.
The Federal Communications Commission is considering banning the practice, which consumer advocates say interferes with customers right to privacy.
Experts say AT&T’s move is part of a larger issue. Because installing fiber cable to offer such high speeds is expensive, providers see tracking consumer surfing and packaging it with advertising as a way to offset costs.
“At the end of the day, these companies want data,” said Gregory Brant Gimpel, a Computer Information Systems faculty member at Georgia State University. “The more data they have, the better they can target you or target your household.”
Finding ways to get that data is growing and in many way consumers are complicit.
Gone for some are the days when turning on lights was a private routine when you got home. Now household lights are connected to the internet along with thermostats, smoke detectors, TVs and streaming boxes like Roku and Amazon’s Fire TV.
Most consumers don’t even blink when hitting yes to the long legalese associated with updating an app on their phone. We upload personal photos to Facebook and Instagram without a care and we tell the world where we are by digitally “checking in” at malls, airports, vacation spots and restaurants.
Despite this, Americans say they are concerned about their data. A study released in January by the Pew Research Center found that 91 percent of adults agree or strongly agree that consumers have lost control of how their personal information is collected and used by companies.
Seventy-four percent of Americans said it is “very important’ to them that they be in control of who can get information about them, the Pew study found.
Kim Speece, of Atlanta, said she is comfortable with sharing her data and understands that much of what she does on the web can be tracked. That is a price you pay, she said, for the convenience that comes with the Internet.
But privacy trumps convenience, she said, when it comes to her two teenage children. She makes sure their settings on Facebook and other social media sites are set to private and she avoids sites or web offers that want to know more about them.
“Their privacy is very important to me,” she said. “If I am asked about them, I always say no.”
David Belson, a technology industry expert, said it’s not so much about the data being collected, but how it’s used. For instance, he wonders if an Internet provider tracking his online habits will expose his kids to advertising more suitable for adults because he watches “NCIS” or will he be inundated with Nickelodeon ads because the site is popular with his kids.
And what happens when the advertising becomes sophisticated enough to leap into the real world of brick-and-mortar stores a la “Minority Report.” In the movie starring Tom Cruise, the actor’s eyes are scanned as he enters a mall, setting off a barrage of pop up holograms pitching ads based on his personal data.
“That’s creepy,” said Belson, editor of a quarterly state of the Internet report for Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Akamai Technologies.
In a race for more speed
AT&T said its discounted plan is about customization, not spying on consumers.
“AT&T Internet Preferences offers customers our best pricing on AT&T GigaPower because we can provide tailored ads and offers to a customer’s interests,” said Ann Elsas, a company spokeswoman. “These are based on their commonly used individual web browsing information. Since we began offering the service in 2013, the vast majority of customers have elected to opt-in to the ad-supported model.”
AT&T did not provide numbers on those who opt-in for ads. The company said data is not sold to third parties.
The company is in a battle with Google Fiber and Comcast to bring metro Atlantans gigabit speeds — internet so fast a high-definition movie can be downloaded in less than 30 seconds.
Each offers the service for $70 a month, but only AT&T’s plan requires customers to allow the company to track their web habits. To surf without the tracking costs $29 more a month.
Comcast locks customers in to a three-year contract at the $70 price. That cost increases to $140 a month without the three-year contract. Comcast said it does not track consumer online activities.
Alex Horwitz, a spokesman for Comcast, said the company’s three-year commitment has actually been well-received by customers. He said it gives them “peace of mind that comes with price stability.”
While Google Fiber’s $70 price does not come with any strings, the company does track viewing habits through its optional TV package. The company said its TV customers can also opt out of the tracking and that it does not make any of the data it collects available to third parties.
Tino Mantella, president and CEO of the Georgia Technology Association, said concerns about privacy may be generational. Millennials are more open to sharing information than their elders because they have grown up in a culture where that is expected.
But he said it is clear to him that data is top of mind for most businesses and it us up to those who gather it to keep it safe. It is not unusual for sponsors of GTA’s events to ask the group to share their email lists so sponsors can thank them for coming. He declines such requests.
“Its very common in all industries now,” he said.
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