Paying with Data: Free Services on the Internet Aren’t Free

Until privacy advocates start freaking out about Facebook privacy settings, default broadcast settings on Google Buzz, or whatever the latest privacy scare may be,  I’m afraid the general population doesn’t quite understand how much data we offer up in exchange for use of free services on the Internet.

Each field filled out, each click, gets translated into data-driven product improvements or are used to serve up increasingly targeted advertisements. The average Facebook user posts 90 pieces of content per month. Google lists over 42 different products, not only search, but browsers (through which you experience the entire Internet) and location-based services, all rife with data.

But of course, these services are useful. That’s why we’re happy to give away our data for free, and perhaps why we don’t even think of our data as having much value. It’s cheap to us, and in return, we get a lot out of the Internet.

But, every day,  it’s getting less expensive for these companies to keep more data for longer periods of time. And the computing power available makes it faster and easier than ever before to do more with that data.

This issue is not just about your privacy and exposure to future employers, insurance companies, and stalkers; it’s about profiling and behavioral targeting by the companies that you once thought were connecting you to your friends and information as a free utility.

It gets creepy when we start uncovering the literal markets that are emerging for our data. The Wall Street Journal’s work in the What They Know series suggests that each bit of information is worth only fractions of a cent, but that adds up, both in your personal data footprint, and in aggregate user populations. However small, putting a number on it makes the value of our data real, and takes it out of the abstract realm of bits.

So what’s a user to do? We could just stop using the Internet all together, but that’s impractical, especially for such a hyper-connected generation.

Instead, we need to become more aware about our data footprints online. As Millennials, we’re the early-and-often adopters of services online, and we’ve probably exposed more of our data than any other peer group.

But we’re also a technologically-savvy bunch, and that makes it easier for us to take advantage of the opt-out alternatives. Browsers like Microsoft’s IE 9 has built-in tracking protection options, and Firefox and Chrome have add-on extensions that can block behavioral advertising. Others, like Do Not Track, are arguing for a single, persistent setting to opt out of all web tracking.

Some are beginning to argue that the individual user is the only logical point for all data management. We have to become conscious of how we’re giving out our data, and become more familiar with how it’s being used. You can start by looking at your Facebook Privacy settings and taking the time to understand what they really mean (thankfully, Facebook has made strides in making the legalese more legible to the average user). And we need to think twice about the sensitivity of the data we are putting out there.

Going forward, we have to be able to assess our own comfort level to start pushing back when it doesn’t feel right. Maybe the line is crossed when you realize you are being followed by ads about hemorrhoids after a search that led you to WebMD because you wanted to know what your grandfather was complaining about? Until we’re all a little more aware of our data exposure, and get in touch with our own feelings about our relationships with the companies that run on our data, there won’t be much alternative because the market won’t bear it.

It’s on us to be become the arbiters of our own data.

Listen to the audio recording of the recent SXSW panel by the same name.

Sara Marie Watson I work at Brightcove, the leading online video platform where I manage our inbound marketing content strategy. I'm also a Lead Researcher for the Web Ecology Project. I previously researched and wrote for a Fortune 500 CIO audience as a technology analyst at The Research Board, a subsidiary of Gartner, Inc. Twitter: @smwat

View all posts by Sara Marie Watson

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