It’s an internet cliche: “if you’re not paying for something you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold.” And it’s true, but doesn’t explain why internet companies watch you constantly.

Yes, you don’t pay companies like Google and Facebook for search and social networking. The people who pay them—their customers—are the companies that buy ads. But it’s possible to “be the product” and still benefit overall, and it’s also possible for companies you’re paying to violate your privacy in creepy ways. The modern web has a lot of problems, sure, but users being the product isn’t the main one.

Being The Product Isn’t New

Advertising isn’t unique to the internet. TV and radio have had ads for decades, and for most of that time were 100 percent free to the public. Newspapers, while not free, generally don’t charge enough to cover printing and shipping: advertising is where the real money is (or at least was.)

In all of those cases the audience has been the product pretty much from the beginning, and the audience benefitted: they got entertainment and information for free, or at least at a much lower price than they would otherwise. Consumers understood they were making a trade and found it to be worthwhile.

The internet is the same way: services like Google and Facebook are free because of ads. Millions of people wouldn’t have access to them if that wasn’t the case.

Now, the online advertising model is not without problems. Targeted ads are more valuable than blanket ones, and market incentives means companies are collecting as much information about you in order to better monetize their services. The result is surveillance on an unprecedented scale.

But does that mean all advertising is bad? I’d argue not. Surveillance is the problem, not advertising, and it’s a problem I believe society should take seriously and try to address. But eliminating advertising isn’t a practical answer.

Companies You Pay Also Commoditize Your Data

You might argue that I’m wrong, and say that none of this wouldn’t happen if consumers paid for products directly for services in the first place. About that: plenty of companies you pay for things are also collecting data about you, and using that data to make more money.

Amazon, for example, carefully watches everything you do on the site and uses that data to work out what kinds of things you like to buy. This is true regardless of whether you’re paying for Amazon Prime.

And you can’t escape the tracking by shopping offline. Target watches your shopping habits, for example, and the data they collect can be downright invasive. Sometimes Target works out that women are pregnant before the women themselves know.

Netflix obsessively monitors your viewing habits and uses that to recommend shows for you, and to make decisions about the kinds of shows they should make. They even show different thumbnails and trailers for shows based on your watching habits, all to better persuade you to keep watching.

These are all companies that you give money to on a regular basis, and they’re employing the same surveillance tactics as Facebook and Google. You might not be their product, but you’re being watched all the same.

Your Attention Is Valuable

None of this is to argue that “you are the product” is a bad thing to keep in mind. On the contrary: I think it’s essential. Your attention is valuable, which is why tech companies want it, and that’s something you should keep in mind.

Every technology company has an agenda, and they design their products to serve that agenda. Ad supported companies have an incentive to take up as much of your attention as possible. But sometimes what serves such a company best really is designing the best product possible.

Understanding what motivates a tech company is useful, but it’s even more important to know what your agenda is. When you’re scrolling through Facebook ask yourself what you’re getting from doing so, and work out whether it’s worth your time. The same goes for any service you use or media you consume, whether you’re paying for it or not.

Photo credit: BrAt82/, Hadrian/

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Justin Pot has been writing about technology for over a decade, with work appearing in Digital Trends, The Next Web, Lifehacker, MakeUseOf, and the Zapier Blog. He also runs the Hillsboro Signal, a volunteer-driven local news outlet he founded.
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