In order to truly be a “free” website the provider cannot charge you fees, collect your information to sell, rent, lease, or share, or put advertising in front of you. Needless to say, there are very few truly free websites; most that are truly free are government, institutional, school, or non-profit websites, though even many of these types of organizations advertise and sell consumer information.
The way most ‘free’ services make money is not by selling advertising. What they sell is access to you, and information about you to advertisers, marketers and researchers, and others.
Your information is the commodity that drives the internet economy. It is collected through your online actions and the information you share, as well as through the exposure of your information by others.
Every piece of information you post, and every action you take online has value to some company or someone. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This trade in information lets you use the websites without paying money for your access. Your information helps companies provide you ads that are more targeted to your interests. It helps researchers and companies know what kind of products to design, and so on.
If you read a website’s terms and conditions you should be able to see just what information is being collected and how it is shared, though many companies make it very difficult to understand the full scope of their use of your information.
In addition to the information the hosting site is collecting and monetizing, an entire new industry has been created just to collect all the information posted by you or about you on any site – including government sites – to sell, rent, share, etc. to any interested party – see my blog Civil Rights Get Trampled in Internet Background Checks to learn more on this particular aspect.
And the data collection and reuse does not end with the hosting company or data collection companies. Your information is also collected and used by recruiters to make their hiring or enrollment decisions, potential dates or friends, by journalists interested in interviewing you. It’s searched by charitable organizations that are looking for sympathetic individuals to ask for charitable donations. And your information is collected and used and by far less pleasant people who want to use the information for things like bullying, cyberstalking, identity theft, home robberies, and other crimes.
To really understand your digital value and how this may have consequences far beyond those you feel comfortable with, let’s look at an example.
“Jenny” is 65. She loves using the internet to research information and stay in touch with friends and family. She’s on Twitter with friends, on Facebook with her grandchildren, and on a social networking site for seniors with her interests.
In Jenny’s profile she provides her full name, age, and location. She’s included a short line or two about her interests – chamber orchestra music, gardening, wine and photography. She’s taken a couple of online quizzes of her likes and dislikes which makes it easier for new people to see if they have something in common with her.
In one blog post she notes that she’s fed up with the democratic agenda. In another she talks about her grandkids that come to her house twice a week after school. She complains that her knees and back hurt twice a week – on the days after her grandkids are over. And she says she hates exercising as much as she ever did, but that it’s even harder to get motivated since her mastectomy.
She tweets from the same doughnut shop every morning where she meets up with friends. On her senior site she joins a wine aficionado group and slyly acknowledges that while she only has one glass of wine a day – she frequently refills that glass several times over!
The photos Jenny has posted are of grandkids, her dog and nature shots. There’s nothing embarrassing in what she’s posted, she wasn’t mean to anyone, but she doesn’t really understand the far reaching ramifications of what she posts.
How do others use this information?
The web service companies she uses collect this information – as well as information about the website she was on before she came to their site (ah, she banks at Chase) and the website she navigates to when she leaves – (oh, she went to the appointment scheduling page of a doctor in the ABC medical practice). They collect they type of computer/phone being used (wow, that’s an old HP!), it’s operating system, IP address, location, etc.
The web service companies are likely to cross tab this information with other information collected by data aggregators from government websites like Jenny her birth certificate – parents’ names, place of birth, date of birth, which when combined with records where Jenny has entered the last 4 digits of her social security number, provides her whole SSN – see my blog Kids and Financial ID Theft; a Growing Issue to learn how SSN’s are deconstructed.
Data aggregators have also collected the birth certificates of her children and grandchildren, her voter record, criminal record (clean), driving record (two speeding tickets in past 18 months). They’ve also gathered information on her deceased husband, what he did for a living (and her projected retirement funds), and information about her home, and previous properties she’s owned.
Crawling the web, data aggregators also see where she’s donated to charities, what her friends are saying about her, what information is discoverable through her photos, and the vehicles she has registered (one car, one boat).
And so on.
What surprises Jenny is that when she chooses to switch auto and boat insurers, she’s denied because of her potential drinking problem, which combined with her speeding tickets could be an expensive mess for the insurance company. She is also denied when she tries to purchase some life insurance – anyone who eats doughnuts every morning, hates to exercise and has already had cancer isn’t seen as a good risk.
Donation requests from music organizations, and catalogs from gardening, and pet supplies companies start showing up on a whole slew of websites Jenny visits online – and more arrive in her mailbox.
Her granddaughter discovers she will have to pay more for medical coverage because the insurance company learned through Jenny’s posts that breast cancer runs in the family.
Jenny falls for an ID theft scam that looked like a request for information from her doctor’s office asking her to reconfirm her billing and insurance data for their records.
To make matters worse, Jenny came home last week after her daily doughnut shop meet up, to find her home had been broken into. All of her photography equipment was stolen.
Once Jenny recognized how information she posted was affecting her, and her family members, she immediately took down some of her posts. Unfortunately, the data aggregators, and web service companies still have their data sets, so the damage is permanent.
If you take this scenario, and expand it to all the communications, contacts, and digital data collected about you, you’ll begin to see the magnitude of the financial model behind web services and data aggregators.
I am frequently asked why internet service companies don’t do a better job in giving their customers what they want. The answer to this is simple; they are giving their customers what they want – and what they want is your data.
In short, while you are the consumer of a websites services, you are not the service’s customers – those are companies paying to get access to you and your information.
A great illustration of this concept was created by the people behind Geek and Poke, and though the company targeted in the cartoon is Facebook, the concept applies to every other web service or product that makes their money behind the scenes.
As you provide information consider how it is being sold, bought, or simply taken and make sure you’re okay with potential outcomes now and over time.
Learn more about the commodity model in this blog When it Comes to Online Ad Tracking, You Can Opt out Any Time You’d Like – But Can You Ever Leave?
Note: ilookbothways.com does not collect, trade, sell, or use any information about our readers, nor do we accept any advertising on our site. The occasional ad that does land on our pages is NOT associated with us in any way.