There was a time when ‘free’ was considered good. “How much is that product?
Then someone pointed out there is no such thing as a free lunch and someone else pointed that if a product is free, you are the product. And all of a sudden, giving stuff away was seen as the devil’s work — instead, the good guys make us pay through the teeth for our products — £1,349 for a smart phone, a king’s ransom for a pair of headphones, but hey, “we respect your privacy.”
Apple’s boss Tim Cook was in Europe yesterday and waxed lyrical about GDPR. In a speech, he said: “This year, you’ve shown the world that good policy and political will can come together to protect the rights of everyone.
“It is time for the rest of the world, including my home country, to follow your lead.
“We at Apple are in full support of a comprehensive federal privacy law in the United States.”
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To many, both users and data processors, the GDPR solution feels like wading through treacle.
And if we want to avoid the emergence of an Orwellian state, or even of a Chinese style social credit system across the world, then we better hope that countries around the world enact their own form of GDPR, and not just regulation like the scheduled privacy regulation in California, which offers little more than a gummy bite, compared to GDPR’s teeth.
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But data is also the fuel that charges AI, and countries that make it hard to access data will be left behind in the AI race.
As for those companies that are to GDPR what a Sith Lord is to a certain far away galaxy that existed a long time ago, they do have a problem.
Yes, their products are free — and some of them even have a motto which says: ‘don’t do evil’, but since they live off our data they are the enemy.
Meanwhile, the halo at Apple shines bright, Samsung busks in its glow, and they are the heroes in the world of privacy. Tim Cook said: “These scraps of data … each one harmless enough on its own … are carefully assembled, synthesised, traded, and sold.” He continued: “If green is your favourite colour, you may find yourself reading a lot of articles – or watching a lot of videos – about the insidious threat from people who like orange.”
Well, football fans whose countries have been on the receiving end of Dutch flair already know about the dangers of orange.
Yet, oddly, Italy’s antitrust watchdog has fined Apple and Samsung €10 million and €5 million respectively for, among other things, having operating systems that “caused serious malfunctions and significantly reduced their performance, in this way speeding up their replacement with more recent products.”
But at least they don’t practice the evil of giving things away for free.
But there is something psychological about free. Had social media carried a charge, say $1.99 a month, then that price would nonetheless have been infinitely more than nothing. We would never have discovered the joys, or otherwise, of Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.
If, from it’s inception, Google had been forced to charge for its service, it would never have emerged from Brin and Page’s dreams, the internet would be a niche product, and we would still nip down to the library for our information.
Can ‘free’ exist simultaneously while having privacy? There is a company, OpenBook, that is trying to sell a free alternative to Facebook that does not sell advertising. Instead the company tries to create a revenue stream by providing a marketplace for buying and selling over its network. Whether this can work or not, we will have to wait and see.
What we really need is a way to let data charge the modern economy, without eroding our privacy. If we fail to find this way, then we will be forced to choose between allowing our privacy to be eroded, or not participating in the fourth industrial revolution.