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The Price of Free Services

  • The Web economy is increasingly based on the business model that was introduced by the radio broadcasting business about one century ago: you get my radio broadcasts for free (all you have to buy is a device that can receive them) and i make money by selling advertising time to companies that sell products. The price you pay for the free broadcast is the commercials that interrupt the broadcasts every now and then.
  • This model was later applied to free magazines, whose content was paid by filling many pages with adverts. Some of the free magazines are basically just made of adverts: the content "is" the adverts.
  • Because the Web is a two-way broadcasting system (your browser sends information out and, worse, can be used by third parties to store information about your Web behavior on your very computer), the advertising platform has become very sophisticated: it is not just the same "commercial" for everybody, but ads can be tailored based on your life.
  • Radio/television broadcasts and magazines customize the advertising based on the content that is "pushed" to you. The Web can customize the adverts based on what you do during the day, i.e. based on the content that you "pull" down from the Web.
  • This has increased dramatically the interest in "surveilling" your life. Every company that offers free services can increase its revenues if it improves the way it tracks your life on the Web and it customizes the adverts that its customers want to place.
  • The price you pay for those free services has been increasing: the providers of the free services (whether search engines or social media) are selling your privacy to advertisers. The more they can sell of your privacy, the greater their profits.
  • The personal is commercial.
  • Most users of the Web are not aware of how much they are paying for the free services that they are using.
  • This is similar to many other cases in which consumers were unaware of the harmful consequences of using something; for example, that tobacco causes lung cancer. Tobacco users were not aware of the consequences of smoking until governments started publicizing them massively.
  • As the surveillance algorithms get more and more sophisticated, what is also increasing is the price (in terms of privacy) that Web users are paying for those free services.
  • Ironically, the free services that we use on the Web mostly rely on content that we provide for free. Radio broadcasting was based on content that "they" (the broadcasting industry) were providing. Web services are largely based on content that the users themselves provide (webpages, videos, photos and so forth). A search engine would be worthless if there were no content to search; social media would be worthless if people did not volunteer a lot of information about themselves and shared it with a lot of other people.
  • The Web user gifts content to the Web service provider that gifts services to the Web user.
  • You provide the content that they use to create a free service to access that content; then they make money by spying on you and selling your privacy to advertisers.
  • The Web user feels free because s/he can use free tools to do just about anything. The Web service provider can capture more information from the user if it provides more free services. The more freedom they give you the more they can monitor you.
  • There are several countermeasures that one can think of: 1. Governments could simply provide services such as file sharing and search engines for free; 2. Governments could "label" the product the way they warn against tobacco or they declare the ingredients of food; 3. Freedom-fighting hackers could do to them what they do to us, i.e. steal their private data and publish them on the Web; 4. Consumers could opt for services that are not free but that also promise not to collect any information.
  • A free service is not freedom. In fact, a "free" service is an oxymoron. Nothing can be free. Someone has to pay for it. Very often "free" services (such as fire and police departments) are paid with taxes. The question is simply how much you are willing to pay and in which form.

Internet users in the USA: