Free Services vs Privacy Online

Big data (combined with data analytics and machine learning) offers exciting opportunities to decipher patterns and solve complex problems more quickly and cheaply than ever before, but it also has the potential to infringe the privacy of individual users.

Looking at a company like Evernote, which uses a freemium business model to help tens of millions of people be more productive at work, it would be easy to think that there is an inherent trade off between providing a free service and dealing with issues like surveillance and data oversight.

CEO Phil Libin rejects the idea that there has to be a trade off between free services and privacy online.

“We don’t have a big data problem”, he told Stephen Chambers in 2013, “we have millions of small data problems … Everything that people put into Evernote is yours, is private and it should be completely up to you what you want to do with it.”

A few years ago, Evernote published three principles of data protection:

  1. Your data is yours,
  2. Your data is protected (that is, it is not data mined or used for affiliate marketing), and
  3. Your data is portable (that is, you can easily take your data and leave).

Libin’s principles for data protection are admirable, and they certainly provide a level of comfort for Evernote users that doesn’t exist everywhere elsewhere.

Facebook, for instance, has been pretty cavalier with user data over the years. Whether it be adding features that share a user’s location, preventing users from easily downloading their own data, or it’s recent and widely criticised Internet.org initiative to provide a limited number of free internet services in developing markets which digital rights groups have argued undermines net neutrality, freedom of expression and the privacy of users.

While Evernote actively favours data protection, there are strong indications that Facebook definitely doesn’t.

Why do Evernote and Facebook have such a different approach to data protection?

The answer appears to lie in the different business models that the two companies have chosen to adopt. Facebook is a free service and apparently always will be. It makes money through ads, and exploits user data in order to serve those ads more effectively. On the other hand, Evernote has adopted a freemium model. It offers a free product to all users and offers a more premium version of the product to paying customers. Happy customers can upgrade if they want to, and this is where Evernote makes all of its money.

There is money to be made online through targeted ads, and this is how Google and Facebook make money. There is also money to be made by providing products that people are willing to pay for, and this is how Netflix, Audible and Evernote make money.

The issue with the targeted ad approach is not that it lacks profitability, but that it requires the companies involved to harvest and analyse user data, and these companies are often elusive about exactly what data they are collecting and how they are using it.

Transparency would restore a lot of trust.