I’d rather not be the product

Google adwords

Google is one of the great success stories of the last decade.  The explosion of the internet has left them at the center of the one sector of the economy that seems to have a future.  In addition to producing Google search, they are one of the companies that is putting significant resources into research that may not have immediate applications.  They’re also from what my friends tell me a fun and exciting place to work.

The thing that surprised most people about Google’s services early on is that they’re free.  Or rather, that’s how it seems to us.  We get to access great resources day in and day out without spending a penny.  Seems like a good deal.

The problem as I see it is that while free stuff is of course very convenient (and cheap), it also means that we are not Google’s main customers.  Their revenue comes not from us but from the advertisers whose messages we occasionally see.  Advertising is of course a perfectly legitimate pursuit.  But coupled with the ever-increasing amount of information that Google holds on our interests, our habits and indeed our lives, this does lead to concerns.

Google of course denies that there is any tension between their two roles – one as a purveyor of network technologies to web users, the other as a massive advertising agency.

In the end though, I think we have to follow the money.  In Google’s case, the money is almost exclusively from advertisers.  And they get that money for providing access to us.  They are an advertising-supported technology company, and their product is us (in particular, our eyeballs).

So far, Google seems to have done a reasonable job balancing privacy and fiscal concerns.  I hope they continue to do that.  But I’d feel a lot more comfortable with the whole arrangement if I was the customer rather than product.  Even if it meant paying a subscription fee.  Some things are better not sold on the market.

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