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Policy + charging

AT&T Plays Big Brother

Spying: It's not just for the National Security Agency anymore.

AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) has just launched its new high-speed "U-verse with GigaPower" service in Austin, Texas. Tacked on to the service agreement for the Premier tier is a clause that stipulates users must opt in to AT&T Internet Preferences. Internet Preferences lets AT&T "use your individual web browsing information, like the search terms you enter and the web pages you visit, to tailor ads and offers to your interests."

For agreeing to participate, subscribers get a $29 monthly discount off the Standard U-verse-with-GigaPower offer of $99 per month. There's also a waiver of all fees for equipment, installation, and activation. Both Standard and Premier tiers promise downstream speeds of up to 300 Mbits/s now, with a free upgrade to speeds of 1 Gbit/s in 2014.

Not too coincidentally, the AT&T gigabit launch in Austin coincides with a push by Google Fiber Inc. to introduce its own gigabit service in the area. (See AT&T 1-Gig Fiber Live This Week in Austin.)

But, in a sign of how hugely valuable targeted advertising rights can be, AT&T is only offering its new broadband connections at Google prices if it can also access subscriber browsing data. Starting in Kansas City, Google Fiber set the standard for 1Gbit/s broadband service at $70 per month. (See Keeping Up With Google Fiber.)

While AT&T beat Google Fiber to the punch in Austin, its Internet Preferences clause may prove problematic. As GigaOM's Stacey Higginbotham points out, it may be that AT&T is using deep packet inspection to gauge the content of user traffic. If so, the telco could face regulatory scrutiny in addition to a backlash in the press.

AT&T did make a case for the Internet Preferences program in a written response to GigaOM. In that response, it included assurances that the company won't sell any personal information discovered in the web monitoring process.

"We use various methods to collect web browsing information, and we are currently reviewing the methods we may use for the Internet Preferences program," AT&T said. "Whichever method is used, we will not collect information from secure (https) or otherwise encrypted sites, such as online banking or when a credit card is used to buy something online on a secure site. And we won't sell your personal information to anyone, for any reason."

— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading Cable

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