Online Tracking: Keeping Austin Weirder

One of our long-standing problems with Internet privacy is the tracking of user activities, more often than not without any meaningful opt-out mechanism: if you don’t want to be profiled by, say, Facebook then don’t go on Facebook. That’s all very well to say, but no use to someone whose social life depends on the social network (it’s one of the areas which the new EU Data Protection Directive might be able to address, if it ever sees the light of day). There is, however, a sense of balance in Facebook mining user data, since the site offers a free service which its users find invaluable. Users receive value in return for the value in their data. Not a transparent relationship, almost certainly not equitable, but at least it’s commonly understood.

More disturbing is the potential for behavioural monitoring and online tracking by communications service providers. When Phorm’s adventures in deep packet inspection came to light, users were quite justifiably outraged: secret monitoring of their online use of a paid service by a third-party organisation without their knowledge or consent was clearly a big step over the line of acceptable intrusion. When users pay for their services, they expect a degree of respect for their privacy.

But there’s no doubting that a key aspect of consumer empowerment is the potential for users to trade some of their privacy for a reward. If behavioural data is that valuable to advertisers, then why not pass that value all the way through the chain to the data subject, rather than holding it with a service provider? 

It’s interesting to see AT&T taking this a step further in Austin, Texas, by offering discounts to internet customers who choose to submit to online profiling of their behaviours. Customer plans are discounted by 30% for customers agreeing to opt into “AT&T Internet Preferences,” which is the company’s user profiling tool, used to target behavioural advertising. I’d be interested to see the small print – does it allow users to use VPNs to obscure their online activities from AT&T? I suspect the relevant protocols would be blocked.

Whilst it’s not a service I’d personally subscribe to, it’s good to see a provider offering to extend the profiling value chain all the way back to the user. As Constantijn van Oranje-Nassau said at this week’s IAPP Data Protection Congress, “you can be at the table or on the menu,” and even if rewarding consumers for surveillance isn’t quite a seat at the table, at least we’re getting to haggle with the Maitre D’ about whether there might be a seat available.