At some point the internet tricked us into thinking we could get something for nothing.

More than any other company, Google is responsible for fooling us. It was the first free and legal service to gain ubiquity.[1] Google told us that we didn't have to pay anything for amazing services. It seemed to good to be true. It was and is, in fact, too good to be true.

What Google doesn't come out and say is that you're paying, a lot, just not with cash. Your data is valuable. Apparently, it's more valuable than charging you for services because you cannot choose to pay for personal Google services and avoid the sale of your data.

This means data, at least what we contribute when properly sifted, aggregated, and analyzed, is more valuable than the cash we'd be willing to pay for access to the same services. When the world is based on networks, as ours increasingly is, then the greatest network is the most valuable asset there is. By making network access look free, Google managed to capture a huge user base. Once it had the network, it started to charge. It cleverly adapted an existing model - advertising - but did it by selling data + access, rather than just access (which is the best radio and tv and newspaper essentially could really do).

If that's true, we need to ask if we're getting a fair deal. But most of us won't ask that question[2], and if we do, we have no alternatives of the same quality. The deal also keeps getting re-traded, without our truly informed consent.[3] Every time Google offers a new service, it collects more data about it's users. That data is valuable on it's own, and makes existing data more profitable. Users could get some sense of the data collected and how it will be used by scrutinizing ever longer legal documents - but that's hugely unlikely. And, again, even if users did just that and found the trade wanting, there's not much recourse.

And if we did want to pay? Mary Meeker's 2014 Internet Trends Report tells us how much our favorite services should cost. Google revenues wouldn't change if we each paid $45 for all of our free services.[4] To grow revenue, Google would have to release new services and charge for them.

That probably sounds crazy, but it isn't - it's roughly how Apple works.[5]


[1] Napster is another important player in this story. It largely convinced a huge portion of internet users that piracy was ok because it was so easy.

[2] There are a lot of causes: laziness, ignorance, fear of complexity or awareness.

[3] Clicking "yes" on new terms and conditions hardly seems to suffice.

[4] This number is broadly indicative though likely skewed by the differences in data value between spenders with different geographies, socio-economic brackets, and histories.

[5] I've been thinking a lot about the way these two businesses work at the opposite ends of this spectrum. It's a fascinating dichotomy.