It’s a word that we take for granted these days.
It’s how we do things online.
Google, Facebook, Twitter and their ilk work hard to foster this mentality.
But it’s not altruism that guides them.
They know that what we give them is of a much greater value than the web baubles and beads they toss our way in return.
Otherwise, how would Google have turned its mediocre suite of “free” online tools and services into $4.9 billion of revenue in the last three months?
Or Twitter have sold its data stream to Microsoft and Google for $25 million?
Well, like my grandpa used to say, “There no such thing as a free lunch.”
And nothing proves that more than the modern internet.
So let’s take a peek at what “free” supposedly means online.
You might think that’s obvious. Free means no transfer of money, right?
Hm, not quite. Money is not the only method of value.
Money is just the most generalized and broadly-accepted one.
So let’s assume for the moment that money has nothing to do with value on the internet.
Once you do that, it becomes clear that the online marketplace is simply using “free” as a loose concept to manipulate you into exchanging something.
In fact, you’re being tricked into transferring a very valuable commodity. One that, not so long ago, you would never have dreamed of parting with so easily.
Most would describe it as information. But information in its raw state has minimal value.
In fact, the single most valuable commodity online, the one that Google and Facebook truly profit from, is privacy.
Whereas we once considered privacy of a high enough value to protect and cherish, these days we trade it in for a free Gmail or Facebook account without a second thought.
By collecting your Internet searches, for example, Google builds a valuable profile of your behaviour, interests, likes, and habits.
They probably know you better than you know yourself.
Through Gmail, you provide Google the opportunity to analyze the entire content of every email message you send and receive.
Meanwhile, Facebook stores and analyzes your personal information, status messages, the videos and photos you post, the friends you make, and the notes you share.
Think of everything you’ve ever posted to Facebook. Then understand that you’ve effectively given it away.
But these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Companies like Google and Facebook carefully design their sites to wring every bit of privacy out of you they can.
Then after just a little while sites like Facebook and Google become vast repositories of your privacy.
In a way, using free online services is like living your life with an ankle bracelet. Every step you take, every word you speak, everything you eat and everything you watch, read, or listen to, all this is recorded and resold.
All in exchange for the rough equivalent of a free one-zone bus pass.
None of us would accede to full-time wire taps in exchange for free phone service.
But many of us accept the equivalent online in exchange for free email.
Of course, free doesn’t fly with stock markets and investors. They require that, at some point, companies express their valuation in monetary terms.
To accomplish that, Google, Facebook, and even Twitter, resell your privacy to the highest bidder.
If you don’t believe me, then take it from Google’s own CEO, Eric Schmidt.
During a recent interview on CNBC, in response to a question about online privacy, Schmidt stated: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
In other words, from Google’s perspective, there is no assurance that what you do online isn’t available to “anyone.”
And Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, in a recent interview explained how Facebook is making it easier for users to trade their privacy for services.
“People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people,” explained Zuckerberg.
Facebook is clearly very pleased to be able to expedite this seminal social transformation if it can also optimize the process of converting privacy into profit.
The scariest thing is that this is just the beginning.
We have no idea what the commoditization of privacy will do to us personally or societally in the long term.
In fact, we barely recognize that the internet has already evolved into a global privacy marketplace.
In fact, we blissfully revel in the tawdry trinkets Google and Facebook throw our way. Just look around. More and more of us dump more and more of ourselves online with little regard to the consequences.
Google and Facebook like this.
Their numbers continue to climb as they take advantage of our naïvety. They know that we think that there is no value in anything but money.
But money is in fact less valuable than ever. Free, on the other hand, is in fact exceptionally expensive.
In the Internet Age, the true source of value is you: your personal information, your lifestyle, your actions, your habits, your yearnings, your wants, your desires.
And once you’ve willingly uploaded everything about yourself to the site with the most features, what is left behind?
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, January 22, 2010.