Online privacy is overrated

The web isn't free. Your information is the entry fee—and it's money well spent.

(Photo: Newscast/AP)

(Photo: George Diebold/Getty)

“If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer. You’re the product being sold.”

This thundering truth appears to have been uttered first by someone named “blue_beetle” on the old-school web forum MetaFilter. Wisdom is like that these days: it comes out of nowhere and bounces around the Internet like a Ping-Pong ball until you can’t be sure where it came from.

Of course, if anyone could track exactly where this sage observation originated, it would likely be someone who works for Google. The search engine giant has been in the news a lot lately because of what it knows. The recent changes to its policies have propelled the issue of online privacy into the spotlight once again. Thanks partly to the spread of social media, more of the information Google collects is tied to our identities, instead of just our computers’ IP addresses, and this has pundits and policy-makers wringing their hands about where all that information is going and how it’s being used.

But Google’s changes seem less threatening when considered up close. What the company has essentially done is link the activities you perform on dozens of its services—from Search to YouTube to Gmail—into a single profile, the better to figure out what makes you tick. It’s less a matter of collecting new information than of assembling data Google already has to create a more detailed picture of you.

Google’s curiosity about us isn’t idle. It is, in fact, the heart of its business. The trail of digital crumbs we all leave online is very valuable to companies that want to sell us things. What Google sells to these companies is, in essence, us. We pay for the services Google provides with information about ourselves, which it then sells to marketers to help them target their messages.

It sounds a little creepy. But the give-and-take doesn’t actually end there, and that’s why we might be worrying needlessly. Our contribution to the game comes back to us in a couple of ways that might be worth every bit of personal data we’re paying.

The first way is self-evident: the obsessive surveillance of Google and marketers like Amazon leads directly to a more seamless and personalized web experience for each of us. The ideal of a digital servant who brings us only what’s relevant and interesting to us may still be a long way away, but the vision has been with us since the Internet was born. It’s an even more attractive idea now that information proliferates at such a bacterial rate.

Offering up our information gets us another, less obvious payoff, but it’s transformational. When marketers become so completely dependent on intimacy with consumers to guide their strategies, it gives those consumers leverage. The difference this makes is subtle but inexorable. The more the web has to conform to what interests us and whom we trust, the more democratic it becomes.

Yes, this intelligence is beneficial to marketers, too—marketing gets more efficient, and the big players get bigger—but at least online consumers have a direct say in whose messages they hear. Compared to passive, one-way media like television, it’s pretty difficult for a brand to dominate the web just by writing a big cheque—and the fact that we are tracked is a big part of the reason why. On the web, if you’re not relevant, you’re invisible, no matter how much money you have.

Blue_beetle is right: The web is transactional. Our information—who we are, the choices we make—is currency now, and we should be careful about how we spend it. We should ask ourselves if what we’re getting is worth what we’re revealing. If it isn’t, we should have the guts to withhold our data, decline that “free” service and go somewhere else. But mostly, the right response is probably to keep calm and click on. We’ve already accepted a world where every cellphone SIM, loyalty program and credit card transaction is telling someone, somewhere, what we’re up to, and often with a lot less disclosure or quid pro quo. If we have to sell ourselves, a better Internet is a decent price.

Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic.