Should your online privacy depend on whether you've paid your Internet provider a little extra this month?
That's one of the key policy questions concerning the future of the Web. And on Thursday, the nation's top telecom and broadband regulator, Tom Wheeler, signaled that he's not a fan of the idea.
Talking to reporters, the head of the Federal Communications Commission implied that the Internet risks becoming divided into privacy haves and have-nots, if companies such as AT&T and Comcast can dangle discounts in front of consumers in exchange for slurping up their search and browsing histories for advertising purposes.
"I would hope that privacy doesn't become a luxury item," Wheeler told The Washington Post.
The FCC is waist-deep in crafting a set of privacy regulations for Internet service providers (ISPs). Some, such as Comcast, have met with the FCC to ask that it not restrict the ability of ISPs to tinker with a discount-for-data business model.
"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 this week.
From one perspective, a broadband discount could help get more people online who otherwise couldn't afford it. Cable companies such as Comcast argue they shouldn't be treated any differently from other firms in the Internet ecosystem: Google offers many of its services for free, in exchange for your personal data. So does Facebook, as well as many online news outlets.
But this business model would put ISPs in direct competition with websites for advertising dollars. And the Internet providers' ability to see the whole breadth of your online activity — not just what you search for during the day or which videos you watch on Netflix — could give them a big advantage over Web companies, critics say.
What's more, opponents argue, the plans could exacerbate inequality. By making it more expensive to buy Internet plans that don't mine your personal information, wealthier Americans may be able to avoid the tracking while people with lower incomes must face a growing barrage of ads, offers and promotions — some of which may not be in their best interest.
"Low-income consumers have less disposable income with which to pay for privacy-protective plans, and therefore are much more likely to give up their privacy in exchange for access to the Internet," wrote Eric Null, a policy lawyer at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. "Low-income consumers should not have to decide between internet access and privacy, but pay-for-privacy forces that decision upon them."