Even if you’re paying for the product, you’re still the product

Incentives matter, but impunity matters more.

Cory Doctorow
7 min readNov 14, 2022

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An Apple ‘Privacy. That’s iPhone.’ ad. The three rear-facing camera lenses have been replaced by the staring, red eye of HAL9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Image: Cryteria (modified) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HAL9000.svg CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en

There’s something oddly comforting about the idea that “if you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product,” namely, the corollary: “If you can afford to pay for a product, you won’t be the product.” But it’s bullshit. Companies don’t make you the product because you don’t pay — they make you the product because you can’t stop them.

The theory behind “if you’re not paying for the product…” is that old economist’s saw: “incentives matter.” Companies that monetize attention are incentivized to manipulate and spy on you, while companies that you pay just want to make you happy.

This is a theory of corporate behavior grounded in economics, not power, a creature of theory and doctrine that never bothers to check in with the real world to see how that theory and doctrine map to actual events. Reality is a lot uglier.

Apple has blanketed the planet with billboards and print and online ads extolling its privacy-forward system design (e.g. “Privacy. That’s Iphone.”). There’s something to this: in 2020, the company made it very easy to opt out of third-party Ios surveillance, and 96% of its users opted out:

https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2021/05/96-of-us-users-opt-out-of-app-tracking-in-ios-14-5-analytics-find/

That decision cost Facebook $10 billion in a single year, and the losses keep coming. Facebook launched a campaign that accused Apple of privacywashing an anticompetitive maneuver, claiming that Apple didn’t care about its users’ privacy, they just wanted to eliminate competition for Apple’s own ad brokerage:

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2020/12/facebooks-laughable-campaign-against-apple-really-against-users-and-small

Facebook’s campaign poses itself as the true champion of its users, accusing Apple of shamming. It’s laughable. Facebook manifestly despises its users and proves that fact every day in a thousand ways, large and small. Facebook’s true objection to Apple’s privacy tools is that they reduced Facebook’s earnings by $10b. Obviously.

But that doesn’t mean that Facebook is wrong about Apple’s cynicism. Apple exercises enormous…

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Cory Doctorow

Writer, blogger, activist. Blog: https://pluralistic.net; Mailing list: https://pluralistic.net/plura-list; Mastodon: @pluralistic@mamot.fr