THE PRICE OF FREE

Goggle’s users are up in arms, universally agitated by the company’s new privacy policy and the way it’s being introduced and implemented.  “Don’t you think their communications on the issue have been dreadful,” a colleague asked using his Gmail account last night, adding: “They’re treating their customers with contempt and I think they’ll lose customers over this.”  At face value, his concern looks like a reasonable conclusion.

But the point my friend is missing is that he’s not a Google customer.  Nor are the hundreds of millions of people around the world that use Google to search the internet, carry out perfunctory translations, find directions or a myriad of other online tasks every day.

Customers write cheques.  Advertisers are Google’s customers. Those of us that use Google’s free services are not customers.  The new privacy policy is designed to enable Google to provide better-targeted advertising which, in turn, will lead to better audiences for advertisers and higher revenue for Google.  Rather than customers, those of us who use Google’s services are core components of Google’s products.  However distasteful the thought will be to many, Google manages and sells us as assets.  That’s the price of a free service.

Twitter, another free service, is rumoured to be considering selling its back catalogue of tweets so that the relevant data can be extracted and used for profit by commercial entities. If Twitter does, such an act of treason will undoubtedly attract similar criticism.  But having a Twitter (or Facebook) account doesn’t make you a customer.  It makes you an asset to be optimised, monetised and sold to the highest bidder.

Whether Google’s new policy contravenes privacy laws as many have suggested will be assessed by others elsewhere.  But have they got their communications wrong?  They could of course have done more to engage with their users over the new policies but it would have been a losing battle.

We’re comfortable in the traditional role as customers where we feel we have a degree of control and resent being treated like assets.  But the new business models ushered in by the Internet changed the rules and leaves us with a choice:  put up with it and get on with paying indirectly for services we gain value from, or start paying directly.

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