The cost of online services

Developing, maintaining, and supporting online services costs money. If you look at how much paid email mailboxes cost, they seem to average around $5 per user per month. Online office services also run about the same amount. So why are so many services out there free? Let’s look at a few examples:

Signal is a free messaging service run by an open-source foundation that is funded by donations, grants, and the developers being contracted to help other services adopt encryption. They provide end to end encrypted messages for free because that is what the foundation was established to do. As long as users, businesses, and other foundations continue to fund the foundation they will be able to continue providing free services.

Both Evernote and Protonmail are examples of offering free limited accounts in the hopes that you’ll like the service enough to upgrade to paid accounts that fund the service. With services like these check the terms of service, privacy policy, and reviews of them to make sure it’s just because free accounts are basically how they market it (Evernote) or is altruistic (Protonmail). Otherwise they probably fall into the next category.

Services like Google (not G Suite which costs $5 per user per month) and Facebook where the accounts are all “free”are paid for by advertising. They can make more per ad by collecting your data to sell targeted ads. In some cases they may share your data with partners and your data may be sold outright. This means that you are the product and not the customer. They also use this data to target content at you to keep you on the site longer so they can learn more about you and show you more ads.

A lot of people think they’re boring and their data is worthless, but that’s wrong. If Cambridge Analytica has taught us anything, it’s that everyone’s data is of value because they can find out enough about you to target advertising and fake news enough to manipulate people sufficiently to undermine democracy. If people can be manipulated that much, then be careful and doubt everything, even if they aren’t trying to throw our country into disarray, they might be trying to manipulate you out of your money.

It’s also worth noting that some of this applies to media sites. Some people produce media as a hobby, others get money through Patreon and similar services that allow them pay their costs and maybe make a little money while keeping the content free, and others host advertising. Most content creators don’t actively collect data, but the platform the content is on (YouTube) and analytic code from Google and Facebook embedded in their sites might.

My sites used to have Google Analytics and I have never intentionally added any Facebook tracking. Duck Duck Go Privacy Essentials is reporting no trackers on any of my sites. All that is left is server logs. Libsyn also provides stats for the podcast, but they gather is where the download came from and the user agent of the app or browser. It’s tracking downloads, not people. That’s the kind of data I care about as a content creator.