Just because a product is free, doesn’t mean that you are the product

Written by Tom Greenwood - April 10, 2018

The recent scandal of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica has quite rightly raised new concerns about data privacy, not just with Facebook, but with tech giants in general. The growing practice of harvesting user data and using it to influence their behaviour reminds me of the film The Lives of Others, in which the East German secret police monitor the lives of residents in East Berlin and use this knowledge from behind the scenes to manipulate peoples lives and control society.

A phrase that’s been around for years and that has been used a lot in relation to this latest Facebook scandal is, “If the product is free, then you are the product.” It’s an eye opening statement and reflects an obvious truth, that if a company is making billions of dollars and you never have to pay them a penny to use their services, then you are not actually their customer. In the case of Facebook and Google, the average person is indeed often the “product” that is being served up to advertisers, together with the data required to help manipulate them into making a purchase (or vote for a candidate).

Is it always a bad thing?

Although there are too many cases where users are exploited, I think the assumption that this type of user-supplier relationship is inherently bad is not always correct.

For example, there are some businesses that offer free services, such as Rightmove and Auto Trader, where the user actually wants to make a purchase and may be happy to offer up some personal data to help facilitate a match making process. In these cases the individual user is not the company’s customer and so in some ways they are the product, but if (and it is a big if) their data is handled responsibly then it can create a win-win outcome.

Sadly, there have been too many cases of organisations and users themselves not respecting or understanding the sensitivity of the data being handed over.  The new GDPR regulation here in Europe goes some way into trying to force a shift in this culture to ensure “privacy by design”, with transparent and secure collection and use of users personal data. However, regulations are only really effective when organisations embrace the spirit of them and don’t treat them as a box ticking exercise, so I hope that GDPR can help create a genuine culture change.

There is a better way

I believe that there are actually cases in which you are not the product.  The statement that “if you don’t pay for the product then you are the product” overlooks other important models. The open source movement has demonstrated through numerous successful projects, such as WordPress, Linux, and Signal, that the user does not have to sell their soul in order to get something for nothing. In the world of software there can be almost zero marginal cost to replicate a product once it has been created, meaning that it is possible for products or services to be genuinely free.  Unlike models such as Facebook that appear to offer value to the user but actually feed off of them as a parasite to the host, open source projects present the opportunity for true symbiotic relationships between creators and users. Most open source projects benefit from considerable volunteer input, because users wanted to make the product or service better and give back to the community.  In cases where there are financial costs that need to be covered, these can often be covered by donations, premium versions of the product, or through more transparent partnerships from other organisations that want to support and utilise the technology without owning or controlling it.

You make the choice

So if an organisation is exploiting your data, it isn’t an inevitable result of the service being provided to you for free, but is a choice made by the supplier in the design of their service and business model.

It is your data and your life, so you owe it to yourself to make informed choices about who you share your personal information with and what you allow them to use it for.  If a service or product is offered to you for free, you should start by asking why.  Perhaps you are being lured into a somewhat unsavoury relationship with the service provider, but on the other hand it could be a genuinely good opportunity that you don’t want to miss out on.  Only by being informed and having your eyes open can you make the choices that are right for you.