The problem with free services – or how we sold out our privacy

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

August 29, 2014

Running internet services costs money (a lot of it) – computer technicians need to design the systems used, maintain them, and upgrade and modify them to meet their users’ demands, and provide technical support when things go wrong; expensive servers need to be either hired or purchased, and then housed, cooled, and maintained; marketing personnel need to be paid, and advertising purchased in order to attract customers etc. etc. etc…

There are only two ways that companies can afford to provide these services (and profit from them):

  1. Customers pay for them
  2. They raise revenue through advertising

The first method, the traditional pay for the services you use idea, has struggled to find purchase in a digital age where the vast majority of people will always chose the ‘free’ option whenever it is available. However, although free is everyone’s favorite price point, the old adage that ‘there is no such thing as free lunch’ has never been more true…

The most successful business models on the internet (think anything Google does, Facebook, etc.) pay for their services and profit from them by providing ever more precisely targeted advertising, boasting to their clients (the advertisers, not their sheep users) about how they can serve up individually tailored ads that are directly related to interests and needs of the user.

Internet companies are able to do this because they track, store, and process almost everything we do on the internet. Google scans our emails, records our searches, tracks the websites we visit, and tracks our physical movements (remember that funky ‘free’ app Google Maps), in order to build up a detailed profile of our likes and shopping habits, so that it can serve up ads for products that it thinks will interest us.

Facebook, likewise, records our ‘Likes’, scans our posts and Messages, and uses the groups we join, and the events we attend, to build up a detailed picture of our personalities and interests, which it uses to deliver highly targeted advertising.

In fact, just about every internet company is desperate to know as much as they can about us, so they can either deliver their own targeted advertising, or sell the information to marketing and analytics companies, who broker the information (just try turning off all cookies in your browser, and see how far you get without breaking almost all the websites you visit).

As the renowned cryptography guru, NSA critic, and outspoken advocate for digital privacy Bruce Schneier says,

Surveillance is the business model of the Internet. We build systems that spy on people in exchange for services. Corporations call it marketing.

Here at BestVPN we are regularly asked to recommend a good free VPN service, but you have to ask yourself – how does any such provider afford the considerable setup and running costs such a service demands? They are certainly not charitable benefactors paying out of their own pockets, so they must be spying on your every action, and selling the information gained thereby…

In his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell famously envisaged a world in which an intrusive ‘Big Brother’ government spied on its citizens every movement. In a move that Orwell could never have predicted, the reality is that with hardly a second though we have eagerly handed over our privacy in return for ‘free’ services, and, as Schneier observes, it is not just private companies solely interested in selling us stuff that benefit from this mass privacy give-away,

That’s how you get weird situations where Syrian dissidents use Facebook to organize, and the government uses Facebook to arrest its citizens… The NSA woke up and said “Corporations are spying on the Internet, let’s get ourselves a copy”.

Who needs a camera in every room of the house spying on everything we do, when we willingly just hand over the information to governments and advertisers anyway? Unfortunately, as people have got more and more used to not paying (money) for the services we rely on and use every day, this is trend that that only looks set to increase…

Remember: if you are not paying for a product, then you are the product (and governments the world over are laughing with glee)!

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