I’m sure you’ve noticed the backlash against free internet services over the past couple of years. Not that there are fewer free services, just that a certain set of people have been arguing that we shouldn’t be using them. Their rallying cry is “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” This is considered a deep truth among the anti-free set. It’s certainly true, but it isn’t deep, and I’m not convinced it makes free services bad.

First, you have to recognize that you’ve been “the product” your entire life. So were your parents and so were your grandparents. Television and radio, newspapers and magazines—they all sell your attention to their primary customers: advertisers. Even things you “pay for” sell you off to advertisers because you really don’t pay for them—you only cover part of the costs. Despite this obvious and longstanding fact of life, while everyone bitches about commercials, no one says TV networks are insidious or underhanded because they run ads.1 I’ve never heard of anyone boycotting Mad Men because they don’t want to be a product sold by AMC.

What’s that? You avoid ads by recording shows on TiVo and skipping over the commercials? TiVo knows that and has been selling your data for a decade or more. They’ve partnered with our Google overlords. Hell, they even keep track of what you pause and replay. This, despite the fact that you paid them for the box and also pay a monthly service fee.

Now, it’s certainly true that ads in old media weren’t as creepy as the ones in new media. When you sat down at breakfast with your newspaper and looked at an ad, it didn’t look back at you, notice what breakfast cereal you were eating, and run off to sell that information to General Mills.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure there’s any convenient way to avoid the creepiness. You can do things like block cookies and use multiple signons, but those things slow you down and detract from your browsing experience. Significantly, paying for your services isn’t necessarily the answer; the TiVo example proves that. Another example may be the new Flickr. You can avoid ads by paying for an Ad Free account, but is there a guarantee that Flickr won’t be collecting data on you and selling it? Not that I can see. In fact, Yahoo’s privacy policy says it uses the information it collects from you to “provide anonymous reporting for internal and external clients.” And really, do you expect anything else? The material of the internet is information; that’s the only thing it can sell.

Apple has held the line on some of the encroaching creepiness, but hasn’t been praised for it. Just the opposite. Apple cut its ties with Google for Maps data because Google wanted your user info and Apple wouldn’t give it to them.2 The quality of iOS Maps went down, and everyone dumped on Apple for providing an inferior product.

Why was Apple’s mapping data inferior? Part of it, certainly, was because they got a late start. But the main reason Google’s maps are better is that Google spent a lot of time and money on its maps, and it did that because it knew that spending would pay off in the collection and selling of your information. In effect, the creepiness of Google is what makes Google Maps so good.

Back when the Hypercritical podcast was still running, John Siracusa said something very smart (not surprising) that didn’t get any play in the blogs I read. He and Dan were talking, I think, about Twitter’s attempts to monetize its service. There was probably some comparison to ADN, which was at the time an exclusively for-pay service (and was a big favorite of the anti-free folks). John said3 it was apparent that Twitter had made an economic assessment of its users and decided they were worth more as advertising targets than as paying customers. Exactly. And those other evil bastards of the internet, Google and Facebook, have done the same thing.

The thing is, this sinister, creepy approach works, and it benefits us, too. A social network that isn’t free won’t have a huge number of users and won’t have everyone you know on it. A search engine that isn’t free wouldn’t be used much and wouldn’t be able to leverage the data collected on an astronomical number of searches. And it’s the same for maps.

I’m not saying free is always the best. There are plenty of internet services that can provide value to their users and sustain profitable businesses without the large scale that free can generate. Conversely, there are plenty of free services that get their plug pulled. But for certain combinations of user interest and profit potential, free works best.

  1. For other reasons, yes, but not because they run ads. 

  2. I’m not suggesting Apple is a white knight. It has your user info and it uses it for its own purposes. It just wouldn’t give it to Google. 

  3. I’m paraphrasing because I’m too lazy to find the episode and relisten.