Everyone loves a good digital freebie, right? But what is the cost of free when you are the product?

Are we questioning what ‘free’ actually means? We are so happy with our techy goodie bags that we are guilty of ignoring whether companies are offering free services out of the goodness of their hearts or whether they’re actually using us as the product.

The land of the free

We at Bamboo are web designers and digital creatives so we naturally have a boundless love for all things internet. But, what the internet was when it was first flung into our lives is very different from what it is now in the shiny world of 2018.

The people that created the internet had a lot of well-meaning ideals and created something mindbendingly revolutionary for our age. They built the internet because they wanted to create a free and plateaued information network that anyone in the world could access. They hoped one day that very open information forum would quite literally free people so that we could all gain access to education, improve our health, connect us as one planet and bring about the evolution of humankind. And the internet did just that, an earth-shattering achievement that should make anyone sit back in their seat.

At its best, the world wide web is a digital eutopia, but the internet also has a much more sinister side and like all perfect things us humans got involved and made it not so perfect.

Moneymaker

One way we brought the internet crashing back down to reality is by using the internet as a vehicle for business. As soon as capitalism crept into the seams, equal and free information was bound to wither. There are of course the internet warriors out there who invent systems or tools and release them to the public for free because they want to do good, but there a lot of people who pretend to do that very thing while making a shed load from their users – and that extends to apps, websites, search engines and online services.

To paraphrase the US free market columnist, Milton Friedman ‘There ain’t no such thing as free searching’ and that’s because most free digital products or services make their money by selling on your information and/or advertising to you. The likes of Google and Facebook sell our browsing behaviour onto third parties who then use that to target you more effectively through advertising. Facebook and the Silicon Valley gang then reuse your information to show you those very adverts, thanks to their clever little algorithms who pick up what you click on, write about or hover over.

When companies hoover up our browsing history or the very words we type to sell to someone else, we as people become the commodity. There are many of us that know but don’t care and are willing to take the risk so we can use kick-ass tools and services for free. The problem is though that companies aren’t being transparent so we don’t realise the true extent of how much these companies know about us and sell on to third parties. The very fact that we open our arms up to digital surveillance without questioning it should also ring huge privacy alarm bells for anyone blissfully scrolling through their apps.

Let’s Play

Even if we are sitting ducks and are seen more as dollar signs than users, we must surely be able to choose companies that don’t do that right? Correct, but the problem is that those companies are in the minority, and are losing the battle against some of the worst offenders out there who have eaten up the market.

To give you an example of some standard dastardly practices, we need to look no further than the search engine school bully, Google. The EU recently fined the tech giant £3.4 billion for strong-arming smartphone manufacturers to build Google’s search engine into their phones. How? They refused access to Google Play for any smartphone manufacturer that didn’t build in their search engine. They also took away consumer choice by denying smartphone manufacturers the freedom to choose competitor search systems that Google hadn’t approved.

Google did this because people don’t usually download competitor search engines, they’re more likely to use an already installed one, which meant that Google was able to eat up 80% of the mobile search engine market by forcing manufacturers to use them or be burned by them. It’s also not the only fine they’ve received, the EU slapped them with another £2.1 bn penalty after finding Google skewed the market in favour of their internet shopping service.

The search engine and other digital titans are willing to risk court cases over their illegal behaviour because the potential profit is always higher than the fines incurred. When Google has 80% of the smartphone market they are a literally the God of information and can sell their data loot to the highest bidder. So why wouldn’t they breach a few pesky EU regulations?

The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal is, of course, another colossal revelation into how our beloved apps and social platforms continuously flout our privacy rights as citizens while working in the moneymaking shadows.

And that is the real problem, companies thinking they could do business above the law and users assuming that companies conducted their affairs within the law. In the past, we inherently trusted Facebook, Google et al. much more than we trusted our own governments when we should’ve actually been very cautious of them. We trusted them because they were part of the golden internet generation when mega digital titans could rise up from bedrooms and college dorms, where tech masterminds were inventing tools to improve humankind. But those companies are now wealthier than countries, and that power can be consuming. So they began to act like countries or even Gods, and that is when we and our governments stepped in to protect our freedoms.

Braveheart

It’s a funny state of affairs when the internet, which was supposed to bring power to the individual, is used to strip freedom from users to such an extent that governments have to step in to protect those freedoms by controlling rampant misuse.

And in these pragmatic times, we all know that companies need to make money and can’t operate on lovely hippy ideals, but what we must fight for transparency and our rights to know what companies are doing with our information.

So even if we are the product we should still know exactly what that means and be able to choose how much companies use our data to make money. But we also need to fight for the internet and stop governments killing the very thing that makes the internet magical. A delicate digital tightrope between wanting the internet to be free and being protected from the people that abuse that freedom. We need to step up and proactively find out what’s happening to our data and use that knowledge to stop the tide when one side goes too far and we as users suffer.

One thing that’s clear is we as users are now firmly awake and won’t fall back into our old ignorant slumber. We now know that although we might be products we are also people with governments who won’t forget that the internet belongs to all of us.


Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash