negative zero

Are You the Product?

2021 April 27

[decentralization] [opinion] [privacy] [tech]

I'm tired of hearing the phrase "If you're not paying for it, you're the product."


Because it's a very commercial phrase.

It's important to remember... in some contexts. Google and Facebook provide services at no monetary cost, and yet these companies make tens or hundreds of billions of dollars each year. That money comes from somewhere, and it comes at the users' expense.

But it's not absolute. Non-profit organizations by definition do not generate profit. Many hobbyists choose to lend their time (and money) to projects they find interesting or worthwhile, even if they have no expectation of generating revenue. Some companies (which do make money elsewhere) financially support development of free (as in freedom and cost) software because it's useful to them. The fact that something is free (as in cost) does not make it inherently predatory; in fact, the best things in life are free.

"If you're not paying for it, you're the product" applies when businesses which are designed to make money have no clear, ethical business model.

"If users aren't paying for it, but it's supposed to make money, the users are the product."

"If it has no discernible business model, you're the product."

Not being a business is the best business model.

But don't you need a lot of income to run services at the scale of Facebook and Google?

Of course, but why should we be trying to run services at the scale of these huge companies? We should be resisting that kind of centralized control which puts way too much power in the hands of one entity. Suppose that allowing all people to reach each other is the goal. Why should they all be funneled through the same door?

We should be focusing on making decentralized networks that either don't require servers at all or are made up of servers run by co-operatives, non-profit organizations, and hobbyists, which federate with each other. Providing a service for free doesn't scale if your goal is to personally provide that service to everyone, but when we provide free services for small groups of users and let them interact with users on other servers, we can network the world.

It's not acceptable that privacy should be a luxury of the rich. What we need is community-run federated infrastructure. Or P2P distributed networks. And having a way for users to use them at no cost is important for making them accessible to everyone.