A few days ago Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared a lengthy post laying out the vision that will be driving his company’s implementation of private messaging going forward. There was a lot to like in that message from a privacy point of view, but the scope was limited — this was not a revolutionary vision for transforming all of Facebook, just for evolving their private messaging offerings.

Big-picture-wise the post laid out six principles that will drive the evolution of private messaging on all Facebook-owned platforms — private interactions, encryption, reducing permanence, safety, interoperability, and secure data storage. Note that the interoperability Zuckerberg describes is between Facebook-owned services, not between Facebook services and services from competitors, so that’s not actually good news from a privacy point of view. This refers to Facebook’s plans to merge private messaging within all its products into a single messaging architecture. This is a privacy loss not a privacy gain, but there is a silver lining — the post promises the merging will be opt-in, and users will be able to choose to keep separate identities on the separate services if they wish. Obviously encryption is good, as is not keeping privately shared stuff for ever.

But, does any of this change the fundamental problem, Facebook’s business model? Nope!

Facebook will continue to make its money by offering users a free service in exchange for their personal information — Facebook remains freepi (and creepy)!

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Anyone who listens to my podcast contributions is probably sick of hearing me repeat the mantra to follow the money. If you want to evaluate whether or not a given product or services is likely to present a privacy risk, you need to start by figuring out how it’s financed. Why? Because the financing sets up the incentives that will ultimately drive the provider’s behaviour. You’ll generally have a good experience with a product or service when the provider’s incentives align with your best interests, and conversely, things will almost certainly go south when the provider’s incentives are opposed to your best interests.

When you pay for a product or service things are usually straight forward — you are the customer, so the provider is incentivised to keep you happy so you’ll keep giving them your money. Things can of course go sour even with paid products or services when the price you pay is below the economic cost of the product or service (e.g. Amazon & Google smart speakers and TV dongles), or, when the market isn’t free, and you’re locked in to a single provider in some way (e.g. broadband in the US). But still, most of the time, if you’re both the user and the customer, your privacy is unlikely to be exploited.

Where things tend to get more complicated is when we’re not paying for products or services with money. That’s when you really need to pay close attention!

We very rarely get physical things for free, so in this post I’m only concerned with online services that are financially free to use.

We need to start by acknowledging the obvious fact that it costs money to run any online service, so if you’re not paying into the pot, someone else must be. Who ever that is, that’s who the people running the service are incentivised to keep happy. In other words, the service provider is strongly incentivised to align their actions with the interests of the people who pay them. When you figure out who that is, you can usually figure out the incentives, and whether or not they align with your best interests.

Remember, sooner or later, quickly or slowly, every organisation eventually follows the incentives acting on it. Incentives might not be fast-acting, but they are relentless, so movement is inevitable!

I want to suggest four simple categories you can group online services providers into to help you figure out the incentives at play, and whether or not they align with your best interests — free, freemium, free-for-now, and what I’ve decided to call freepi (pronounced like creepy). Yes, it will be an over-simplification, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a useful lens to look at the world through. The real world may be messy and complex, but most things still approximate our crude categorisations!

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