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When the internet began to be “a thing” in the 1990s, a friend of mine used to ruminate on how “this could all be free.” The economics just didn’t make sense to her: Why weren’t we paying for information the way we had in the past? Fifty cents for a newspaper with advertisements made sense to her, but the new, “free” internet model didn’t.
The economics weren’t made clear to consumers from the beginning, but we’re now getting a better idea of what “free” actually means. A recent Wall Street Journal piece reported that Google gives outside app developers access to the inboxes of Gmail users. The article is eye-opening because of the amount of data that is collected for marketers by developers that have access to users’ actual, unredacted emails. The rationale for this is that those emails help companies make better software tools for tasks such as doing price comparisons, making to-do lists, or scheduling. Access to real email content is supposed to help train computers to be smarter at finding deals and creating task lists. But at what cost?
According to the same report, nearly two-thirds of all active email users globally have a Gmail account. That means these companies have access to individuals’ actual financial information, shopping histories, travel plans, and personal communications. The ability to data mine Gmail provides a treasure trove of “free” information. Of course, other “free” apps and their services collect user data and share it with third-party vendors, data mining companies, marketers, and advertisers. (Some of the information mined from these apps and email programs does help create a safer internet ecosystem, contributing to things such as investigations into malware code and fixing software bugs that enable abuse of data and other bad online behaviors.)
Apple has been vocal about its company policy that all device data is encrypted and that information is not stored by Apple or sold to third-party vendors. This shows that the market gives consumers some choices about controlling who has access to their data, but this is just one layer of the technology ecosystem. Cheaper devices are available because of their marketing programs with third-party vendors; Android devices are notorious for their sharing of data by design, which also keeps the cost of devices down.
Consumers and tech creators have many decisions to make to keep the best parts of the internet and devices working. Most people understand that the economics of “free” means an exchange of data occurs at some level. Transparent privacy policies that let consumers know about the exchange that is occurring are the best way to keep consumers informed and the free flow of information available. Transparency should be a priority for all parts of the technology ecosystem — hardware, software, networks, applications, end users, and marketers. Understanding the cost of “free” may change the market dynamics for internet users and creators, but it may also allow those who make data privacy a priority to have more control, even if it comes with a cost.
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