Saturday, February 9, 2019

No Free Lunch

I heard this line again today. This time on The CyberWire podcast:

«If it's free,
you're the product.»

I love that. Our society has gotten kind of bipolar. On the one hand, nobody wants to pay for anything, and on the other hand people get bent out of shape when they find out that companies like Google and Facebook may be monitoring their activities. We want the low prices of Walmart, and then complain when jobs are lost to China.

Wired Magazine reports that "On Thursday[February 7th, 2019], Germany’s Federal Cartel Office, the country’s antitrust regulator, ruled that Facebook was exploiting consumers by requiring them to agree to [extensive] data collection in order to have an account, and has prohibited the practice going forward." Facebook claims that it's adherence to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) absolves it of any antitrust violations.

The timing of this is downright spooky, in that on the Monday February 4th, 2019 episode of the Jordan Harbinger podcast, Mr. Harbinger discusses the real cost of the “everything is free” mentality with Jaron Lanier, an early Internet pioneer and author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. I'm not willing to go to the extent that Mr. Lanier suggests, however he makes a few good observations: he is able to stay up to date on all the latest trends without any social media accounts by having real relationships with other people; most people don't realize the degree that their information is being collected and monetized; and if the business model was subscription based, instead of advertising based, many of the negative aspects of social media would be removed.

From a security and liability perspective, it is best practice to only gather as much data as is necessary to provide the goods and services for which an organization is engaged. What has been happening however, is that organizations are developing services that they can't sell, so they offer them for free, and then recoup their costs and try to earn profit by selling advertising. For example, when Facebook came out, they were offering a solution to a problem I didn't know I had. Therefore, I would never have signed up if it required a financial obligation. But when I created my account, and noticed that I could use it to connect with friends and family that have otherwise slipped out of my life, I realized that the service had value. Where my initial observation was that Facebook was just a website, I now view it as a service not unlike a telephone. I gladly pay for my telephone (though I feel I pay too much), and I would gladly pay for Facebook today (as long as the price was in check). What I will not do, is pay twice: both financially and with data.

It would make an interesting study. If Facebook were to reveal the full extent of their data collection, and tell its subscribers how much that data is worth to them financially, how many subscribers would be willing to pay for a "datanonymous" version of the service? What's your privacy worth to you? Could Facebook continue to offer their current service in Germany if they also offer a subscription-based version that gathers no data?

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