Stop Saying 'If You're Not Paying, You're The Product'

from the there-are-more-options dept

We just wrote about how silly it is to argue that companies you pay for their services or software somehow treat you better or are more "aligned" with user interests than those who give you products and services for free. When you dig in on the subject, such claims don't make any sense. In both cases, companies have some alignment with users -- because without users, they're nothing -- and some alignment with trying to make themselves money. And sometimes those two alignments conflict, whether or not the user is paying directly.

Derek Powazek (random trivia: whose work inspired me to learn how to create a web page back around 1995 or 1996 or so) has an excellent take on the pithy and dismissive phrase that many often use to argue that free services treat users worse:
"If you're not paying for the product, you are the product."
It's pithy and clever... and wrong. Powazek dismantles the claim eloquently. He attacks the underlying assumptions in that statement. He highlights that "free with advertising" has been a pretty big business for a long long time, in which there's no indication that users were treated as "the product" or somehow treated poorly. And then there's the key one: this is not an either/or situation:

I’ve worked for, and even run, many companies in the last 20 years with various business models. Some provided something free in an attempt to build an audience large enough to sell advertising, some charged customers directly, and some did a combination of both. All treated their users with varying levels of respect. There was no correlation between how much money users paid and how well they were treated.

For example, at JPG Magazine we sold something to our audience (magazines, subscriptions, and ultimately other digital services) and we also sold ads and sponsorships (online and in print). We made it 100% clear to our members that their photos always belonged to them, and we had strict rules for what advertisers could do in the magazine. We also paid our members for the privilege of including their photos in the printed magazine (as opposed to Instagram’s new policy that they can use your photos however they want, even in ads, without paying you a dime).

This example is much more complicated than the black and white “you’re the product” logic allows. In some cases, users got the service for free. In others, they paid us to get the magazine. In still others, we paid them! So who/what is the product?

And just because you pay doesn’t mean you’re not the product. Cable TV companies take our money and sell us to the channels, magazines take our money and still sell ads, banks and credit cards charge us money for the service of having our money. Any store that has a “loyalty card” takes our money for products but gives us a discount in exchange for the ability to monitor what we buy. In the real world, we routinely become “the product” even when we’re already paying.

He also points out, as I have many times, that there are plenty of companies whose services you pay for who treat their users atrociously. And then points out what many of us have been arguing all along: there are all sorts of business models online. Some work in some cases, others work in other cases. But to argue that "free" services mean you're "the product" and thus not treated as well, simply isn't an accurate or realistic statement. So can we please agree to kill it?

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    Chuck (profile), Dec 20th, 2012 @ 2:17pm

    Product = Disrespect?

    Some stores throw their iPhones. Others handle with care. That doesn't change the fact that if you're not paying, you're being leveraged into getting someone else to pay. Hence you're the product getting sold.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    Zakida Paul (profile), Dec 20th, 2012 @ 2:20pm

    Re: Product = Disrespect?

    Not always. I download Linux distros for free all the time, I am definitely not a product there. Nor am I a product when I download music for free on Jamendo, or watch one of the free movies on Open Culture.

    In the case of social networking, yes, we are the product.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 20th, 2012 @ 2:44pm

    The Product

    Try obtaining support from Google, or even finding a way to contact them at all. Unless it's paid services like Google Play, you're not getting any support from Google even though without you and others like you they would be out of business. Reason is that, from the point of view of the people who actually pay the bills, Google's users are the product.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    timmaguire42 (profile), Dec 20th, 2012 @ 3:12pm

    Your takedown doesn't address the phrase as I've always understood it.

    Businesses make their money somewhere. If you are using a service you don't pay for, it's because they're selling the information they collect about you and feel they make enough from that that it's worth it for them not to charge you. It is true quite literally.

    But then, I've never thought it meant free means bad treatment. Apparently someone does think that's what it means.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    mickmel (profile), Dec 20th, 2012 @ 3:17pm


    If you are using a service you don't pay for, it's because they're selling the information they collect about you...

    Not always. Look at Dropbox. 95% of their users get it for free, and they get great support and (as far as I know) none of their information gets sold. The idea there is to get them hooked on the product and want to upgrade later, but if you're content using their free service (which tens of millions of people do), you aren't a product in any way.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    akp (profile), Dec 20th, 2012 @ 4:03pm

    I don't think that *anything* free means you (the user) are getting sold out.

    I think it is clear in Facebook's case that the users *are* the product. Facebook doesn't have anything else. All it has are the "social connections" and user demographics being leveraged to provide targeted advertising.

    Dropbox has a product: Storage.
    Instagram has a product: A useful app with photo processing (I'm not a user)
    Facebook has... Nebulous social tools. And a history of nuking everyone's privacy settings, making access to their demographics easier.

    Powazek is right of course, but I've only ever heard the phrase in relation to Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. Services where yes, the user base IS the product.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 20th, 2012 @ 4:04pm

    With all due respect you've created a straw man and knocked it down. The original comment makes no mention of receiving a lower quality of service than a paid service or that other business models don't exist that also productise you. You've added those negative qualities through your interpretation of the phrase and then refuted them.

    Free with advertising has been big business for a long time, you are the product being sold to the advertisers to subsidise the content. The comment is correct in that context. The comment makes no claim that being the product is a negative thing in that situation. That's your baggage from social networks where it often is a negative thing.

    Techdirt highlights others doing this same thing all the time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Ed C,, Dec 20th, 2012 @ 4:36pm


    I agree and was going to post about this too. The crux of Mike's argument is disproving his assumption about the original argument, not the original argument itself. Well, congratulations Mike, you proved yourself wrong.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Eponymous Coward, Dec 20th, 2012 @ 5:53pm

    Let's amend the statement...

    "If you're not paying for the value, you are the value."

    Though honestly I don't get the outrage against being "the product" that some people have. Yeah, sure having your data used to better advertise to you has a high creep factor to it. But that isn't all of what being "the product" is in my view, for instead of just being marketed to you and your output, as "the product", are also being marketed to your peers. I originally thought of changing the saying to be: "If you're not paying for the product, you may be the product or the producer", but didn't for I see it as a redundant statement for being the product of value and being the producer of value are one and the same in this sense. In the end I have no problem being "the product" marketed by a platform to potential users so that they to become "the product" and so on spreading our collective value.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    artp (profile), Dec 20th, 2012 @ 6:08pm

    If you're not paying, the money is coming from somewhere

    I agree that this is not linked to QOS, but it is probably too simplified.

    TANSTAAFL still applies.

    The money may come from me, from advertisers, from reselling my personal information, from charitable donations, from community effort, or any number of things. None of these are linked rigorously to QOS. All the permutations apply.

    But when I get something for "free", and the service provider is reselling my personal information, then I am indeed the product. When they keep changing the rules and denying me access to what they are doing with my personal information (a double standard), then I am indeed the product, and I have a HUGE problem with that. Others don't. Good for them.

    You picks your horses and you takes your chances. Me - I'm not a gambler.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    David Touve, Dec 20th, 2012 @ 7:15pm

    No, we can't.

    I believe your question was, "Can we please agree to kill it?"

    No, we can't. It's a great issue for debate, and one that likely wont be defused.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Revvy, Dec 20th, 2012 @ 9:53pm

    I'd like to sell you something


    I'd like to sell you something. It's something you want. I know how to get it, and a lot of it. It's very much what you're looking for.

    It's over here, playing this video game. There you go. Just put up your ad in front. There it is. You got attention.

    First one's free. Now you can pay per click.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Michael, Dec 21st, 2012 @ 5:21am

    Re: Re:

    Yup. It's like that free hit of crack.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 21st, 2012 @ 6:50am

    Your argument completely fails

    You're trying to say that since companies who charge customers also treat their customers like crap and companies who don't charge their customers also provide service, that somehow the phrase isn't valid. None of that disproves the phrase.

    Every company which is for-profit, sells something. Whoever is paying, is the real customer. Nothing about level of service is going to change those facts.

    That's not to say that a company which provides people a free product/service in exchange for them ingesting ads can't provide what you want in a product/service. But that doesn't change the fact that you're the product in that case.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    Jesse (profile), Dec 21st, 2012 @ 10:40am

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    anon, Dec 24th, 2012 @ 5:12am

    People should say that

    Because it's true. From Facecrook to Google *YOU* are the product.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Luca, Feb 19th, 2013 @ 7:35am


    You've misunderstood the phrase.

    It doesn't mean you get treated better when you pay, it implies that no one does anything for free.

    Facebook allows free use because it gets advertising from basically all aspects. This is what it means. Unless you're paying, you're basically just earning them money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    The Hackee, Feb 23rd, 2013 @ 6:04am

    Re: Wrong.

    People do bad things in this world. I feel sorry for him. This most likely is his greatest achievement or his only source of income. But I don't agree with the way he is doing it. he is a criminal.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Dee, May 14th, 2013 @ 3:31pm


    This phrase is simply the modern equivalent of TANSTAAFL - "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." In other words, no one ever gives anything out for free. The internet version of "If you're not paying for the product, you are the product" simply highlights the fact that the entity giving you that "free" thing is getting something from you, even if it is simply the ability to count you as a subscriber, which could increase their profitability through advertising. Stop being so offended.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Sheldon Hearn, Jun 12th, 2013 @ 11:07pm

    Excellent strawman

    That's a great straw man; that you won't be treated well if you aren't paying.

    But that's not the point. The point is you (your identity, your privacy, your income or your time) are being sold.

    Full marks for misdirection, though.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Peter Demel, Aug 7th, 2013 @ 4:57am

    Very awesome post. I think so too, it's pithy and clever... and wrong. Thanks for sharig.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Scott, Dec 24th, 2013 @ 2:41pm

    Those of whom the ads are about buy us seeing their ad
    We are still the product regardless of whether you are treated well or not

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    Brian White, Jun 5th, 2014 @ 10:29am


    I wrote about this myself. I work at Google and thus have significantly more insight into the operations of the company than most.

    Users are customers, not product.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    George, Jun 10th, 2014 @ 11:45am

    Re: I'd like to sell you something

    Great point, Revvy. In other words, "free with advertising"="you are the product".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 27th, 2014 @ 3:35pm

    Eh, you miss something here. If something is ad-supported, you very much are the product that the site is selling to advertisers. The point of the pithy statement isn't to wrap up all transactions in a single sentence, but rather to cause people to think about the relationships they have with companies. In the case of new social networking entity who promises never to have ads - it should make one *really* think about what thing of value is being sold - and to whom - to pay for all of those infrastructure costs. It's not that it's nefarious, it's that the relationships are sometimes hidden - which is kind of deceptive. At least ads are "honest" in that regard.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. identicon
    Gia, Feb 16th, 2015 @ 12:47pm

    Re: Re:

    well, actually, they're buying you with their free service. The give you the opportunity to store your info up to 5 GB for free in exchange of the chance that 5 GB sooner or later won't be enough for you (it definitely won't be at some point) and you will pay them to give you more space. You are the product and your price is 5 Gigabytes on their data machine :) It's only a matter of time - when you'll be their paying costumer.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. identicon
    THATGUY, May 8th, 2015 @ 8:53pm

    Dumb as hell

    This is a complete straw man argument. You have no real basis for asserting what you assert. Basically you are attempting to lead people to believe your point of view without using logic. This is disgusting. More disgusting than the fact that people will follow your line of thinking. But not by much. Check your supposed intellect at the door and let your betters influence public opinion and discourse because you have obviously failed by posting this garbage editorial piece. Seriously, you are what is wrong with the world. Stop.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. identicon
    kevin, May 10th, 2015 @ 6:40am

    i think this means

    i think this means... if you are watching tv.. (not hbo) but..networks or news programs or 24 hr news channels...... people imagine that those programs are there to "inform them" but, those people cater to individual people's interests (irrational fear and bigotries) to garner their EYEBALLS... they are selling your eyeballs to the advertisers, to pay their bills and make profits for their stockholders. we dont pay for we pay comcast.. THEY pay comcast... they have to pay for all the tech and reporters or producers.. advertisements do that for them.. not you and me.... and what advertisers pay for is our eyeballs..

    so they have highly focused propaganda shows like on fox .... to cater to a simple minded hate filled bigot rwnj... to get him to see the commercials they play.. to pay their bills... ergo... we are the product. thats why boycotting rush limbaugh's advertisers.. he's being dropped by several advertisers and even a few radio stations.

    if you arent paying for are the product.

    its an apt assessment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. identicon
    Bill Sprague, Feb 25th, 2016 @ 3:00pm

    Re: i think this means

    I have learned (from Apple's "privacy" policy) that '... A few years ago, users of Internet services began to realize that when an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product. But at Apple...' Yeah, yeah, yeah. They still make lots of money don't they? Privacy is not a dead concept. Neither is making money. I get ads all the time from the New York Times even though I pay them each month! The Customer Service Rep (there's an oxymoron if there ever was one) just shrugged her shoulders. Turn the page if you don't like the ad. Apple is sort of the same.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30. identicon
    the d bulge, Mar 11th, 2016 @ 7:39am

    Scarecrow from Wizard of Oz

    " There was no correlation between how much money users paid and how well they were treated. "

    How about, there was zero claims by the original statement in terms of treatment. The phrase doesn't even remotely touch on the topic of treatment or value. You've essentially beat the crap out of a strawman that doesn't exist.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31. identicon
    Isma, Mar 14th, 2016 @ 1:52pm

    Have you ever tried contacting them ?

    I've always got an answer from google all multiple times I tried contacting them, once about my chromebook, an other time about the localization of a place on GMaps, and I'm french, contacting US support in english.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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