Alternatives exist for every feature and app offered by these companies, and they are not hard to find. You can use Signal for chatting, DuckDuckGo for search, FastMail for email, 500px or Flickr for photos, and on and on. Far from being shameless clones of their competitors, in many cases these products are even superior to their originals, with better designs and novel features.
And yet. When consumers start to think about the costs, they balk. There’s sometimes the costs of the products themselves (FastMail is $30/year minimum, but really $50 a year or more if you want reasonable storage), but more importantly are the switching costs that come with using a new product. I have 2,000 contacts on Facebook Messenger — am I just supposed to text them all to use Signal from now on? Am I supposed to completely relearn a new photos app, when I am habituated to the taps required from years of practice on Instagram?
Surveillance capitalism has been in the news the past few weeks thanks to Shoshana Zuboff’s 704-page tome of a book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” But surveillance capitalism isn’t a totalizing system: consumers do have choices here, at least when it comes to consumer apps (credit scores and the reporting bureaus are a whole other beast). There are companies that have even made privacy their distinguishing feature. And consumers respond pretty consistently: I will take free with surveillance over paid with privacy.
One of the lessons I have learned — perhaps the most important you can learn about consumer products — is just how much people are willing to give up for free things. They are willing to give up privacy for free email. They are willing to allow their stock broker to help others actively trade against them for a free stock brokerage account with free trading. People love free stuff, particularly when the harms are difficult to perceive.
This is not to say that Facebook and Google shouldn’t try to improve their shoddy records on privacy, or rebuild trust with users. Those consumers are always able to leave, and their sentiment should never be taken for granted. But after more than a decade of abuse, we should look deeper at our analysis and perhaps conclude that these issues aren’t abuse at all, but rather a bargain, a negotiation, and one that people are quite willing to live with.
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