‘Free’ is Not Always Free

Anyone who’s known us or done business with us for any length of time knows that there’s no such thing as a free anything. If you use T-Mobile to access the Free Conference Call service, you likely got a rude – though not necessarily expensive – wakeup call about the fallacy of free.

The problem, as one of our clients discovered, was that the dial-in phone number for Free Conference Call was not on his T-Mobile plan. He had to use the service for business calls, and it cost a penny a minute. We investigated the charge and eventually found he got a text message about it. This wasn’t a big deal cost-wise, but it was a huge annoyance. After all, he expected it to be “free.”

In reality, it’s not a free service. Your carrier may be subsidizing the cost of the call because it helps them keep your business or gives them a platform to sell you additional services. The company that provides the service may be subsidizing it as a way to encourage you to use paid services.

Regardless, it begs the question of what else are you paying for? We might get some more specific answers from the Congressional grilling that the heads of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google underwent, but we suspect the substance won’t be any different from what we’ve discussed before. In just about every aspect of our online lives, we trade privacy for convenience.

Google, Amazon and Facebook are probably the biggest beneficiaries of this trade. Google is synonymous with online searching, and Amazon turns up as the top listing (or they buy top-of-the-page ad space) for just about anything you want to buy. Facebook will display ads for products you’ve searched for on Google or other websites and will show you ads depending on product pages you’ve liked or comments you’ve made. Oh, and did we mention that if you use a YouTube video to learn how to do something, Google can send you ads for a product you may have watched in the “how-to” video, which you can buy on Amazon.

You get all of this information for free in one sense, but you’ve paid through the nose in another sense. All of them have collected information about you, which they sell to companies who want to advertise products and services to sell. The info is sold for pennies per click, but, as they say, they make it up in volume. Through cookies, they retain info on your browsing history. That helps them direct you to products and services you are interested in. That’s your convenience. But they also know where you’ve looked and used algorithms to figure out what you might be willing to pay for whatever it is they’re selling. You could wind up getting “special offers” for goods and services at higher prices.

You can decline cookies, erase your browsing history and take similar steps to protect your privacy. But you really can’t hide from everyone, and your searching will be more difficult.

Are there alternatives? Yes, there are plenty of them. You can go back to Yahoo, which used to be the search engine of choice before Google, or you can use Microsoft’s Bing or an independent such as Duck Duck Go, which claims to protect your privacy when you search. You can try to find smaller or more local providers of goods and services independently of Amazon. You may wind up with fewer choices and fewer options.

We invite you to share your thoughts and experiences with other providers of searches and goods and services. Leave a comment and check back to share information. You may not get anything that’s truly free, but you may free yourself from hidden costs and know more about what you’re paying for.

The Not-So-Hidden Costs of Free Apps

Facebook is free. You can get a free Starbucks app that gives you savings. You can use any number of free navigation apps, such as Waze or Google Maps. They may be free of fees, but they have costs, but they have costs, and that may be at the practical heart of privacy.

Our purpose here is not to get into the specifics of how you can delete apps like Facebook from your computers and devices. You can find a lot of those steps within the apps themselves. Nor is our purpose here about whether you should delete those apps. Facebook continues to come under fire – and to fire back – as the news changes every day.

In our opinion, the issue of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, which brought a lot of this discussion to a head, happened in 2015. Facebook shared data with Cambridge Analytica under an agreement, but when the agreement was terminated, the data wasn’t deleted. In some ways, we are now looking at several issues, so let’s separate them. I did download all of my personal information that Facebook has about me, and some of it was scary. The scariest part was that they have all of my contact information, and I could see the names of all the people who may have requested to “friend” me but did not accept.

In a way, all of the info didn’t surprise me, and we should all note that Google probably has more information about all of us than Facebook. Like it or not, our likes and dislikes, which are all reflected in what we say on Facebook and in Google product reviews, to name a few, plus all the searches we do and websites we visit all become valuable information for advertisers who want to focus on those who are most likely to buy a product. John Wannamaker, the Philadelphia-based department store owner, said some 150 years ago that he knew only half his advertising dollars were working; he just didn’t know which half. Today’s analytics help businesses and political campaigns make their dollars work more efficiently.

That’s where “free” comes in. We like free apps, free things and being free to express opinions. But it has a cost: whatever level of privacy you are willing to give up. Yes, those “terms and conditions” and “privacy statements” are long and difficult to read, but we all know the drill. In return for being able to use their apps and be eligible for certain perks, we give them the ability to track our locations and share information with their business partners. If anything, the Facebook fiasco has raised our awareness of what goes on behind the scenes, and we may be less willing to give everyone unlimited access to our preferences and whereabouts when given the opportunity.

Another related issue is the Internet of Things, or IoT. All the “smart” home systems, including the smart speakers from Amazon, Google and Apple, collect data based on the info you request, the songs you play and even the merchandise you buy using their systems. Two things we don’t know are: 1.) Do they collect information even when you haven’t activated them? 2.) Who has access to the information they collect?

Moving forward, I am not going to drop out of Facebook. But we can all download the info Facebook has collected on us and look at the apps and advertisers we are tied into through Facebook. We can delete those we don’t want.

Looking at all the data collected about us and figuring out what to delete or hide can be a daunting task, but we can help. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to make an appointment to review whatever information you can collect from the apps you use. We’ll do the best we can to find that happy medium between convenience and security. But even if you decide to drop off the internet and just pay cash for bills and goods and services, your privacy still cannot be ensured.