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What to expect when you’re a product

February 24, 2012

In the last couple of weeks we’ve seen a number of cases where people have (rightly, in my opinion) gotten upset about what they perceive to be invasions of privacy by companies. In the most prominent cases, Google got caught circumventing privacy settings in Mobile Safari, and Path and others have been caught uploading user’s address books.

Now, to be clear, I don’t condone either behavior (or similar behaviors). However, I do find it interesting that people seem to be so surprised by such behavior. Google, Path, and many other companies are not selling you a product. You have not paid them in cash for services rendered. Instead, they are offering you a service in exchange for data about you which they can then use to sell you as a product to other companies.

Given that the whole business model for these companies is based on assembling and marketing data about you, why is anyone surprised that they’re pushing the boundaries as far as they can and (occasionally? frequently?) stepping over them? Of course they’re going to try to get as much data as they possibly can; they make more money that way!

Look folks, when you’re a product here’s what you should expect from your service provider:

  • They will collect as much data as they possibly can about you and retain it for as long as they possibly can.
  • They will try to obscure what data they’re collecting and how they’re using it, because they realize that if you knew what they’re doing you’d rethink being a product.
  • New features are always designed with an eye to eliciting additional data from you.

There are, of course, exceptions. But they are exceptions, not the rule.

My point is not to argue that being a product is necessarily bad. I too use services where I am a product: a variety of Google’s offerings, Twitter, WordPress, etc. My point is to realize the trade-off that you’re making and adjust your expectations accordingly. Recognize those services impose costs, even if they’re not monetary.

Where I personally take offense is when I both buy a product and am a product. If I am paying you for services, then I expect that you are working to my interests. If you’re not making enough money from selling me a product, charge higher rates; don’t try to pad your earnings by also selling data about me on the side. That’s why I find ideas like sharing data about my reading habits to publishers deeply offensive. I have already paid you for a product (in this example, an e-book). That should not entitle you to turn around sell when, where, and how often I am reading it.

So there you have it. If you’re a product, expect more and more data collected about you. If a provider won’t tell you exactly what data they’re collecting, expect they’re taking as much as they technically can for as long as they can. And if you don’t like it, maybe it’s time to reconsider the predominant model of advertising-based services and consider actually buying products again. Y’know, rather than being them.

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