Bartering our Privacy

Many years ago I worked for a brilliant man, an industry analyst who did groundbreaking work in developing models for delivering broadband services to residential customers. I recommend you check out his current company, DEEPfutures.

Last August, he wrote a post on LinkedIn discussing new business models for Internet services. It’s a good read, but I disagreed with a key point that he made about the business model of presenting ads based on personal data:

“That business model is an unequal barter. In old-style, traditional barter, a farmer might trade a sheep and two chickens to have the barn roof repaired: both sides would have calculated the value and benefit. In our unequal barter, we trade all our personal information for…cat videos [and] free-to-us online services: Gmail, Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, etc. It’s unequal in that we, the users, have no say over or insights into the value the adtech giant firms abstract from our data. It’s also unequal in that all people’s data, mine, yours, a billionaire banker’s, a poor farmhand’s, are traded for the same “free” service, although our data clearly have different utility and value to the adtech companies and their customers.”

I disagree with this statement in two key areas:

  1. “It’s unequal in that we, the users, have no say over or insights into the value the adtech giant firms abstract from our data.” Yes, it may be unequal, but it’s certainly not unfair. In the old-style barter system, we assume that the farmer traded his sheep or chickens to the roof repairer so that the latter could feed his family. But what if the roof-repairer had discovered a way to make chickens lay golden eggs and he could generate millions of dollars in income going forward? That’s still not an unfair barter, since the farmer received something valuable — a now leakproof roof — in exchange for something he considered valuable. In the same way, companies like Google, Facebook and others who give us cat videos or apps in exchange for our data are providing something of value — we don’t lose in the bargain if they are smart enough to turn our data into something more valuable than we consider it be when we hand it over.
  2. “It’s also unequal in that all people’s data, mine, yours, a billionaire banker’s, a poor farmhand’s, are traded for the same “free” service, although our data clearly have different utility and value to the adtech companies and their customers.” Here again, that doesn’t really make the barter unfair — if adtech companies find more value in a billionaire banker’s data than they do in the data from a farmhand, but are willing to provide the same free services to both, that’s not really unfair to the banker or farmhand. These individuals, as well as the adtech companies, are willing to enter into a barter relationship for something they each perceive to be of value.

This should not be interpreted as any kind of defense of Google, Facebook or others who have clearly demonstrated that they often play fast and loose with others’ data. Nor is it a defense of adtech companies and others that take your data without permission. For example, TechCrunch has found that companies like Air Canada and Hotels.com will record your mobile phone interactions, sometimes without permission. That’s not barter, since something of value has been taken from you without your consent in exchange for nothing in return.

Instead, I believe the fundamental problem is that too many aficionados of cat videos and various types of “free” apps place too little value on their privacy. They are too quick to hand over their data without first considering the consequences of doing so. The transaction is fair, but the adtech companies are thinking critically about what they can do with data owned by people who don’t think critically about entering into a relationship with them.

Any unfairness in the bartering between individuals and adtech companies will be solved only when the former begin to think seriously about the implications of handing over data without first considering the consequences.