Nothing is free: what is the real price of your data on Facebook?

Year: 2017; Author: Mark W. Datysgeld.

To a certain extent, there is already some ongoing discussion about the practice carried out by several companies that provide Internet services of collecting data from their users in a massive manner, with the stated goal of optimizing the display of advertisements and suggestions on their platforms, in order for those to be more aligned with the profile of each costumer. This has become a maxim replicated throughout the network.

Consequently, this allows services like Facebook and Google to ask for a higher fee from advertisers, as they have the valuable ability to connect products that companies want to sell with potential buyers. In theory, this is the compensation received by the service provider in exchange for the product that it offers without monetary cost to its user, which can come in the form of a search portal, social media, email provider, among others.

What is scarcely discussed, however, is what would be a realistic alternative to the model presented by these service providers. Does it exist? Is it the case that the Internet has some innate characteristic that forces the services offered in it to be free, since they would not be attractive to the users if they had a monetary cost? It seems to me that at least a brief analysis of the topic is warranted.

I want to speculate here the option of a paid version of Facebook, totally optional, in which the user's personal data is not used for any purpose other than those explicitly aimed at social interaction. This would also mean that the company could not conduct any of the behavior tests it regularly engages in, such as when in 2014 they manipulated the posts seen by about 700 thousand users so that they were exposed only to sad or happy posts, thus being able to analyze if that changed the emotional state of the people (the answer is yes, there is a direct correlation between what is seen and what is put on the platform).

Our initial question is then: what would be the monetary value necessary for the inclusion of this option to make sense for the company? According to data submitted by Facebook for the US government in November 2017, there is an average profit of US$ 5 per user per quartile – every three months. Users in North America are the outliers, generating US$ 21 per quartile.

This could lead us to imagine that one possible solution would be charging an amount between 5 and 15 dollars universally. Perhaps even better than that, a different value could be contemplated for each region, as is already being practiced by some digital goods stores such as Steam, which instead of charging based on the dollar price of products, take into account the economic profile of each territory. Thus, in Latin America 5 dollars could be paid, while in the Global North some 15 dollars could be payed for the same service.

Serious problems do exist, however: first, Facebook's flagship product is not the content platform on which users make their posts, but rather the algorithm behind that system. Any qualified programmer can create a social media interface, but it's the way Facebook mines the data of its users and how it resells it that has real value.

Second, auditing the non-use of data for the sake of the paying users would have to be done by an independent third party. Observing that the algorithm used by Facebook is considered by itself to be secret and protected by intellectual property rights, all sorts of controversy would emerge from this conflict of interests, and any restriction imposed by the company could mean a loophole to be exploited to make use of the data anyway.

Finally, people do not seem to have much interest in protecting their data if it involves spending money; I affirm this based on several events and lectures I have already participated in, whether as a speaker or a listener. In 2016, I raised the idea to more than one hundred Latin American high school students during a youth engagement event. Within that key demographic for Facebook, many considered having such an option to be important, but only two or three of the hundred agreed they would pay for it.

As long as a mentality is not developed within society that there is a real and quantifiable monetary value for information pertaining to our behavior, patterns and actions, we will remain without control over this information, as it will continue to appear to the vast majority as a good currency with which to pay for services on the Internet. It is not a question of whether this is or not a valid model, but rather of it being the only model presented, not allowing user autonomy in deciding how to interact with services online.

Originally published in the Portuguese language on the website Portal Agora-TO on December 7, 2017 at the address:
How to cite according to Chicago 17th edition: Datysgeld, Mark William. “Nothing is free: what is the real price of your data on Facebook?”, December 7, 2017. Accessed [Month DD, YYYY].
Internal archival identifier: S-013-EN