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Watchlist: Using ‘Free’ Online Services

What is it?

A wide variety of services, products and platforms are available free of charge online. They range from almost ubiquitous services such as Google to game apps like Pokémon Go, to highly specialised niche apps like Carr Matey (which will tell you where you parked your car, but in a pirate voice).

These products and services may not cost you any money to use, however, it is important to be aware that there is still a transaction taking place between you and the providing company. Rather than paying in money, you are paying with information about yourself. In return for using their services, companies may collect information including personal demographics like age or gender, what kind of browser you use, what other sites you visit, what online purchases you make, who your social media contacts are, even your physical location. This data may be used for a range of purposes including targeted advertising and market research. It may also be shared or sold on to third party companies such as data brokers. Data brokers re-package and sell information on individuals for a variety of purposes, ranging from marketing to identity checks to investigating insurance claims.

For some people, this is not necessarily a bad thing. A business model based on the sale of personal data enables access to many products and service which consumers want, and which they might otherwise not be able to access. Others are worried about what might happen to their data, especially given how much personal information it can reveal. What it does mean is that consumers should be aware of what data they are giving in exchange for these so-called ‘free’ services, and recognise that it may be used in ways which are difficult to predict.

Who does it effect?

Everyone who uses free online products or services, which is virtually everyone using the internet.

What are the key policy issues?

Key issues in this space include privacy, transparency, security and regulation. Consumers have a right to know what information companies are collecting about them in exchange for using the company’s service, and whether that information may be shared with third parties. This is usually contained with the terms of use or user agreement. Consumers should also be able to have a reasonable expectation that companies will store their data securely and take appropriate steps to prevent it from being stolen or misused.

In practice, many companies are not transparent about how customer data is used or who it is shared with. In some cases, companies may take data or track users without their knowledge or informed consent. There is also relatively little legislation in place to regulate data brokers and other entities whose businesses are based on buying and selling information about you. This can make it difficult for consumers to find out which company knows what information about them, and what that information might be used for.

What can I do about it?

You may still choose to use free online services, but it is important to be savvy online consumers. The first and most obvious thing you can do to protect your privacy is to read the terms of use and user agreements for online services which you use. These are often long and boring, but try to at least read the Privacy sections before clicking ‘I Agree’. Consider also using alternative free addresses for subscriptions to services, for example. Look at using free and open source software, that tend to be better at protecting personal privacy than proprietary companies.

Other things you can do include:

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