Would you pay less for Internet access if it meant being tracked more closely online and seeing advertising based on your behavior?
That's what AT&T is planning for its new fiber optic Internet service in Austin.
For $99 a month, customers who sign on with the company's GigaPower network will get access to a 300 Mbps connection, one that will automatically be upgraded to a full gigabit per second at no extra charge once AT&T is satisfied with its initial rollout. But for just $70 a month, city residents can get the same service if they submit to something called AT&T Internet Preferences, a program the company says "may use your Web browsing information, like the search terms you enter and the Web pages you visit, to provide you relevant offers and ads tailored to your interests."
Based on these numbers, AT&T appears to value Austinites' privacy at just under $350 a year.
In some ways, the Austin rate plans are reminiscent of a much earlier era. More than a decade ago, NetZero pioneered the ad-supported Internet model by serving their users ads in exchange for service. But today, companies know far more about who their customers are and what they do online, thanks to sophisticated tracking methods — and they're perfectly willing to exploit that information.
GigaPower's tariff schedule has also been compared to what Amazon has done with the Kindle. You can buy a subsidized Kindle if you agree to be shown ads while the device is asleep. Yet Kindle ads don't significantly alter the user experience; they're static images you hardly see anyway, because they only show when you're not reading.
AT&T's ads are potentially a much bigger deal. Allowing Internet Preferences to mine your searches and other data could directly affect your privacy — and by extension, that of your spouse, children, house guests and whomever else might hop on your local WiFi. Seeing ads as you're browsing stands to alter your Web experience in major ways that simply displaying an ad while you're away from your computer would not.
Grades of Internet service are mostly differentiated based on speed. If this model spreads, however, Americans are going to have to start putting a real dollar figure on their freedom from online snooping.