Abstract – Opting Out of Privacy: The Freemium Economy of Private Data

(Note: I'm in the middle of my comp exam, so apologies this needs to be fleshed out more! But I'm eager to hear what you all have to suggest in class today.)

Nowadays, it seems new tech services always use the “freemium” model when launching. Basic users of the service get access to a basic set of features and can upgrade to paid access to the tech service if desired. This allows tech startups to gain a sizable user base and therefore validation in the eyes of venture capitalists and either receive more funding or be purchased by larger tech companies. Applying the “freemium” model to a tech business also has another benefit that should trouble privacy advocates: essentially, these tech services are offering users a service in exchange for private data – a very valuable asset to advertisers and marketers. As more and more major tech services grow in popularity, more users are offering their private data in an economic exchange for access to these services. This has created a digital economy where private data operates as the currency. Using Spinuzzi’s work on Actor-Network Theory (ANT), my paper will model how tech companies, advertisers, and users all interact with each other to obtain and “spend” users’ private data. I will also discuss the implications of the increasing willingness of users to trade privacy for convenience and the potential ramifications this trend may have on developing technology and policy. (These analyses will be reviewed with Foucault’s, Dyer-Witheford’s, and Horkheimer & Adorno’s work in mind.)

Ideally, my presentation will answer the following questions: how does the economy of private data support the theories Horkheimer & Adorno proposed in their work (or does it only support part of their theories)? In what ways do the agents involved in this economy use this data, and is this model weighted against one group or another? (I'm guessing it's a big “yes.”) Which agents benefit most from private user data, and how is this data used? Finally, in this paper's most tinfoil hat-y concept, is the culture superstructure encouraging the free abandonment of private user data in order to make it easier to keep the masses in control (via constant placation through freemium products)?


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