Did you know that in some parts of the country, Internet providers such as AT&T offer a special deal on broadband prices? The plans lower your monthly payments, but there's a catch: To qualify for them, you have to agree to let the carrier track your Web history, search activity and other valuable behavioral data that can be used for advertising purposes.
Now, Comcast is telling regulators it wants the flexibility to offer these types of plans, too. In a meeting Monday with the Federal Communications Commission, officials from the cable company argued that it and other Internet providers shouldn't be prohibited from trading discounts for data.
The meeting comes as the FCC considers how to apply new privacy regulations to Internet providers, in an attempt to ensure that consumers get privacy protections online similar to those they receive from traditional telephone companies.
Most of us agree to give up our data in exchange for using online services such as Google, Netflix and Facebook. Cable and Internet providers have said it's only fair for them to compete on the same playing field.
"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," Comcast wrote in a regulatory filing after its meeting with the FCC.
Consumer groups who oppose Comcast have said that Internet providers have a unique vantage point over everything an Internet user does online. For example, Netflix's intelligence about its users is largely limited to what customers do on its own platform, with little visibility into how those same people watch videos on Hulu or Amazon. (Amazon.com founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Internet providers, however, can detect when a subscriber visits all three sites.
Many analysts expect the FCC to finalize its privacy rules for Internet providers this year. But there are a lot of details to be hashed out, including whether Internet providers will be able to share subscriber data by default with marketers or whether they will be required to first obtain customers' explicit approval.
It's still unclear whether Comcast has actual, concrete plans to roll out a discount, data-driven Internet program. But what is clear is that the company has at least considered the possibility and wants looser rules for the industry that would permit such plans. A Comcast spokesman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.