Saying “If You’re Not Paying, You Are The Product” Is Wrong

This week I heard the phrase that haunts tech policy. You know it. If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. 

Concise? Yes. But wrong.

The product is actually an ad, positioned on the site and tailored for you. Countless weeklies across the US run under a free model and have done so for decades. The New York Times has defrayed the expense of printing by ad supplement since its beginning. And the first newspapers, which popped up in the trading ports of Venice and Amsterdam, helped merchants sell excess to offset expensive parchment.

But it makes sense why the pithy phrase has staying power.

Mull it over again.

If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.

Naturally, we wonder next, wait, am I being violated? It is a tradeoff dripping with ethical accusations. Steven Pinker gives us one way to understand it in “Better Angels of Our Nature,” when he reviews the work of political psychologist Phillip Tetlock:

Tetlock distinguishes three kinds of tradeoffs. Routine tradeoffs are those that fall within a single relational model, such as choosing to be with one friend rather than another, or to purchase one car rather than another. Taboo tradeoffs pit a sacred value in one model against a secular value in another, such as selling out a friend, a loved one, an organ, or oneself for barter or cash. Tragic tradeoffs pit sacred values against each other, as in deciding which of two needy transplant patients should receive an organ, or the ultimate tragic tradeoff, Sophie’s choice between the lives of her two children.

Are we selling a kidney? No, we are giving a small part of our attention for an ad that won’t be remembered 60 percent of the time. Advertising ethically can be done, as Derek Powazek, who helped to build Technorati, points out:

There are ways to do [ad supported media] while still maintaining respect for the consumers. We’ve been doing it for years.

Saying that you are the product if you aren’t paying for it, disintegrates under just a minimum of scrutiny. It’s time to get rid of that phrase.

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