I was recently talking with a friend who works at the server farm end of IT with clients including most of the big UK telcos. I was complaining about the fact that the principal business model for telco operators is surveillance and expressing concern at the government’s determination to force them to hand over our metadata without a warrant. He didn’t see things my way, probably because providing this surveillance capability is how his unit makes his money. He said something like this:
The problem is that everyone wants free texts and calls and data and they want their monthly bills to be low. The only way telcos can do that is by making money in other ways. Surveillance is the only way they can offer services at the price people want.
This is a superficially reasonable argument with only one slight flaw: it’s bollocks. It presupposes that surveillance is the only way it can be done and that there aren’t enough people who value privacy enough to want to pay for it, either explicitly or in the form of a higher tariff. It’s a justification rather than a business case. Maybe there aren’t enough people like me who would pay for privacy, but as far as I can see, the telcos aren’t asking. Other business models are possible and might even be successful.
Here’s an example of another way. It’s not specifically based on privacy (although the article mentions private browsing) but it shows that there are other ways of extracting money out of people:
FreedomPop will offer Sim cards that offer 200MB of data, 200 texts and 200 minutes of voice calls per month using the cellular network at no cost.
The company already offers a similar free mobile data plan in the US to more than half a million users.
The firm, which is backed by Skype founder Niklas Zennstom, says it will make money by selling extra services.
And, of course, charging big fees for exceeding the limits.
The article gives some examples of the paid-for services the firm might offer, including the ability to roll unused data, calls or text over to the following month, anonymous browsing and the ability to add a second number in a different country so customers can call that country at local rates.
Anonymous browsing isn’t going to solve the telco privacy problem and I’ve no idea whether this – or any – firm will come up with a solution based around privacy. But it’s nice to know that there are other business models out there.