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if it is free, you are [not] the product

“If it is free, you are the product” 

This statement is an easy shot.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. are free because they use our data.

Therefore we are bound to agree to this fact or simply close our social account and disconnect from the rest of the world.

But is it really true?

Can we never see anything offered for free that is not perverted at its core?

It is not what you think

The usual argument says : “Free for the users, means that you have to pay with your privacy and the reason for it is that since you are not willing to pay for the service, then somebody has to – hence advertisers“.

But that is a bit simplistic.

It forces us to agree that privacy goes against the natural evolution of the world.

And this is reinforced by opinion pieces in the media and barely refuted by the same company we accuse of doing so.

Yet, it might be a bit more complex than that.

Derek Powazek has actually a good piece where he explains:

“I’ve worked for, and even run, many companies in the last 20 years with various business models. Some provided something free in an attempt to build an audience large enough to sell advertising, some charged customers directly, and some did a combination of both. All treated their users with varying levels of respect. There was no correlation between how much money users paid and how well they were treated.”

Which make sense, not everything free is evil .

“For example, at JPG Magazine we sold something to our audience (magazines, subscriptions, and ultimately other digital services) and we also sold ads and sponsorships (online and in print). We made it 100% clear to our members that their photos always belonged to them, and we had strict rules for what advertisers could do in the magazine.”

Transparency is the key

 

We also paid our members for the privilege of including their photos in the printed magazine (as opposed to Instagram’s new policy that they can use your photos however they want, even in ads, without paying you a dime).

Instagram is a part of Facebook (so is Whatsapp).

Have you ever read the terms and conditions?

This example is much more complicated than the black and white “you’re the product” logic allows. In some cases, users got the service for free. In others, they paid us to get the magazine. In still others, we paid them! So who/what is the product?

The devil is in the details.

Black  & white approach is usually an over simplistic way to look at a situation.

And just because you pay doesn’t mean you’re not the product. Cable TV companies take our money and sell us to the channels, magazines take our money and still sell ads, banks and credit cards charge us money for the service of having our money.

Any store that has a “loyalty card” takes our money for products but gives us a discount in exchange for the ability to monitor what we buy. In the real world, we routinely become “the product” even when we’re already paying

Companies have always collected data.

We just started to take notice.

Trust issues

The core of the problem is not really how much data is collected, but how this information is used and can we trust the company to be transparent about what they do or not.

In the end, it is all a questions of intent.

When it was revealed that snapchat never deleted the content even though they told their users they a snap disappeared after 24h, the lie became obvious.

When Facebook is accused of picking sides in US politics (and it is their right to do it, it is a private company) people start to be concerned one way or the other about the impact of the platform in the world.

When Google is meddling with UK NHS records of patients (while nobody really signed up for that) the question is not about whether or not the service is free or paid, it is whether or not we can trust these companies to act in our best interest at all.

The satirical following conversation give you an idea of what could happen in a big-data, no-privacy, AI-first world:

 

I am not 100% sure that if users would be paying for the service it would make such a big difference.

On the other hand, you have services like Mastodon, an open-source twitter clone, who also collect data  (since you need data to be collected for the service to work)but doesn’t try to hide anything about what is happening to the information you share, the general approach they took from the beginning is very transparent and upfront explanation of how things works.

 

 

TL;DR:

 

  • Money you pay and how you are treated by a company are too separate things.
  • Free is no excuse to lie to you about what happens to your data
  • Free doesn’t mean you will be the product
  • It is all about the intent
  • Ask for transparency
  • if you don’t get it, probably assume the worse