Amber Mac

Free sucks. I want my privacy back

Special to The Globe and Mail

(Glenn Lowson)

In February 2008 Wired’s Chris Anderson wrote an article called, Free! Why $0.00 is the Future of Business” In it he explained that “the trend lines that determine the cost of doing business online all point the same way: to zero.”

I heard Anderson speak not long after he published this piece (he also wrote a book on the same topic). While I was skeptical then, today I’m even more certain that the future of the Web, especially when it comes to online services such as social networks, is anything but free. In fact, free is proving to be serious threat to our privacy.

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Let’s start with the shiny new Google+. The search engine giant launched their Facebook-killer just a few weeks ago. Today, they have more than 25 million users. Already, they have agitated a huge community of people fighting to use whatever name they like when they sign up for the service, resulting in “nymwars.”



The problem is that the social network does not allow pseudonyms. The company explains that “it’s important to use your common name so the people who want to connect with you can find you.” While at first glance this might seem appropriate, after a little research it’s clear that there are numerous groups that are discriminated against due to this policy. For example, as the My Name is Me site explains, abuse survivors, academics, activists, and adoptees (and these are just the groups that start with “A”) should be free to choose usernames to stay safe online (to avoid harassment, discrimination, economic hardships including job loss, and in some cases, physical danger.)

Let’s move on to another social network that is messing with our minds. Just this week Facebook has been under fire because of accusations that the company is making users’ phone numbers public. What’s happening is that, when you download Facebook’s mobile app, your phone contacts are synced automatically with your Facebook profile. In short, you might see a contact’s number in your list on Facebook even though that person has not shared his number on the social network.

This is the explanation straight from the Zuck team in Palo Alto: “The phone numbers listed there were either added directly to Facebook and shared with you by your friends, or you have previously synced your phone contacts with Facebook. Just like on your phone, only you can see these numbers.” If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is. The good news here is that your number isn’t actually being shared publicly, it’s just showing up in places that perhaps you don’t know about; i.e. within your profile on a friend’s contact list on Facebook. What probably should happen, as Mashable reader Heather Hollowell points out, is that “You should have to opt into this feature, rather than have it happen automatically and have to uninstall it.”

Yes, that would be ideal.

Finally, LinkedIn, the professional network that could do no wrong. This summer the company launched “social ads.” Basically this meant that your name or photo could show up in an advertiser’s message, without you knowing it (based on whether you recommended or followed a company). Although LinkedIn did announce this new advertising scheme, most users didn’t notice the campaign until recently. Naturally, this upset the community and this week the company pulled the ads. Again, this should have been an opt-in feature only (but instead it was turned on by default).

I have always been understanding that these tech giants need to make money. Supporting tens of millions of users takes time and a whole lot of resources. While it’s in Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn’s interests to attract as many users as possible – and clearly free is the way – there are obvious consequences: Users get to play without paying, but every few months we get kicked in the face when our digital profiles get abused.

I’ve always preached that it’s important to keep personal information offline, including phone numbers and other sensitive information. The problem is, most people don’t do this. While I’m not sure paying a monthly subscription fee, for example, would eliminate all of these issues, maybe at some point it would take the pressure off these companies to sell us out time and again. Moreover, maybe we could get better services with enhanced privacy settings. And maybe even a little more respect.

When it comes to social networks, we’re seeing the ugly side of free. At the end of Anderson’s three-year-old article he writes: “... free is what you want – and free, increasingly, is what you’re going to get.” On the contrary Mr. Anderson, we’ve done free and it sucks. Now we just want our privacy back, even if it costs a few bucks.

Follow on Twitter: @ambermac