How much is online privacy worth? $29 per month, according to AT&T, which is offering new ultra-fast Internet service called GigaPower that aggressively tracks users’ browsing activity unless they pay extra.
GigaPower, which is currently available only in select United States cities, provides gigabit-speed bandwidth for residential customers. AT&T is offering the service to compete with Google Fiber, which delivers similar bandwidth.
Download and upload speeds on the service could be anywhere from about 10 to 50 times faster than those available from standard residential Internet connections today, like Verizon Fios. In addition, AT&T GigaPower is priced at only $70 per month, which places it in the same price range as standard Internet service in the United States. That makes it a pretty attractive deal for Americans who are fed up with paying more for less bandwidth compared to people in other countries.
But GigaPower comes with a huge privacy catch. To get the $70 rate, you have to opt in to a program AT&T calls Internet Preferences. According to the company, that service tracks “the webpages you visit, the time you spend on each, the links or ads you see and follow, and the search terms you enter.”
AT&T says Internet Preferences does not monitor connections encrypted with HTTPS. Encrypting your traffic with a VPN would also presumably protect your privacy — but it would also defeat the purpose of a gigabit Internet service, since few VPN services can deliver that type of bandwidth. Your bandwidth speeds would almost certainly be much slower when using the VPN. (Don’t even think about Tor, which would be even slower.)
You can choose not to enroll in Internet Preferences, but in that case you have to pay an additional $29 per month for GigaPower. And even then, you’re still just taking AT&T’s word for it that you’re not being tracked.
Google says it does not track users’ behavior on its Fiber service, but there, too, consumers have few means of determining with certainty that they are not being monitored.
The bottom line: Internet Service Providers in the United States seem to be working to force a trade-off between affordable high-bandwidth Internet service and privacy. So far, there’s no obvious solution for consumers who want both of these things.