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The Best Things in Life Aren’t Free

March 5, 2012

“I fear Greeks, even those bearing gifts.” – Laocoön, in Virgil’s Aeneid 

Once, on a walk to the local bar with a friend of mine, he abruptly asked me if I liked getting things for free. “Sure,” I replied. “Who doesn’t?” Without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t.” When I asked him why, he replied simply: “I like to know what I’m getting.”

Today, most of the services that we enjoy most are free: Pinterest, Google, Facebook, Youtube. We feel entitled to use these services; users have long balked at the mere hint that Facebook would begin charging for its services. We often imagine that if we are “paying” for these services at all, we’re paying for it in the number of times we click on (or rather, endure) paid advertisements.

Users deceived?

What we now know is that these services aren’t free; we pay for them with our privacy. Google tracks your web searches and sells that information to advertisers. While they claim that the “more relevant search results and ads” will “help you connect with people or…make sharing with others quicker and easier,” this is weak rationalization. Google is a business that offers hundreds of free services to its customers. In return, those customers give up some of their privacy to use those services. Google needs to make money.

On March 1, Google released their new privacy policy. In essence, the privacy policy gives Google a tremendous amount of control over your data. They acknowledge that they use cloud computing; that is, they acknowledge that your personal data is probably on a computer in some other country and they might not even know where. They say that they “will share personal information with companies, organizations or individuals outside of Google when we have your consent to do so.” This sounds good, but remember that they are only speaking of “personal information”. One wonders what this means. Is personal information the same thing as our search history?

Coinciding with the release of Google’s new privacy policy, the U.S. Government released a Consumer Data Privacy Bill of Rightson February 23. According to the bill, consumers have the right “to exercise control over what personal data organizations collect from them and how they use it.” It also suggests that consumers have rights to transparency, contextual sharing of content, the secure handling of their personal data, access, “focused collection” of their data, and a level of accountability from the organizations and companies using that data. Passage of the bill means that companies’ existing policies would have to be rewritten if those policies do not comply with the bill.

Consumers have forgotten that old adage, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” The economist Greg Mankiw describes the expression: “To get one thing that we like, we usually have to give up another thing that we like. Making decisions requires trading off one goal against another.” Google, Facebook, and other “free” websites offer tantalizing services for no monetary cost. The catch: we pay for these services with our personal data. The trade-off is clear. We either give up Facebook or we give up our personal data.

How willing we are to give up our personal information is one of the most compelling dilemmas of the Internet Age. There’s no doubt that Google, Facebook, Youtube, and other “free” websites offer outstanding services to consumers. However, few of these companies give consumers the ability to pay to opt out. But perhaps the better question is: would you be willing to pay to use Google’s services? Facebook? Youtube? If not, just remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

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