Fast Company editor in chief Wesley Diphoko. PHOTO: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)
Fast Company editor in chief Wesley Diphoko. PHOTO: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

The Infonomist: Zoom's freemium model and price you pay for privacy

By Wesley Diphoko Time of article published Jun 5, 2020

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CAPE TOWN -  ​If you use the free version of Zoom, you will not enjoy the end-to-end encryption which is designed to ensure privacy of your calls. 

Zoom chief executive, Eric Yuan, recently revealed this during the earnings call with analysts.

“Free users for sure we don’t want to give that because we also want to work together with FBI, with local law enforcement in case some people use Zoom for a bad purpose,” said Yuan on the call.

He went on to explain the rationale of this statement by admitting that Zoom had enjoyed an "unprecedented number of free participants".

Then he explained the greater motivation, “If you can merely scare - I'm sorry, I mean convert - a fraction of these unprecedented free people to pay a little for encryption, your profits might reach, well, unprecedented levels”

In admitting that free users of Zoom will not receive the same protection as paying users, Yuan has revealed the true cost of using free services online.

The reality is that Zoom is not alone in implementing this abusive freemium model. 

Other major technology companies also follow the same model. Most of the services that we use online are offered for free for most users. The assumption by most users is that when they use a free service they are not paying. The truth, if you follow the Zoom logic and approach, is that the free users of internet products pay with their privacy and data. 

Free is not always as good as it sounds,free can actually cost you.

One British art critic and pundit John Ruskin once said, “It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money, that’s all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do.”

This is true of some internet products that compromise user privacy and data. While every individual has a responsibility to be discerning in choosing internet products, it’s important that free reign is not allowed for free internet products.

We should take into account that not every internet user is digitally literate to distinguish what is good and bad. Our understanding of this fact should, therefore, lead to a creation of safeguards on the internet to prevent the abuse of user privacy and data. Companies that abuse user privacy and data in the pursuit of profit should not be allowed with their 
abusive behaviour.

Apple is leading the privacy game through encryption of its products. Tim Cook and his leadership team should be commended for respecting user privacy in this way. 
It should however be noted that Apple can afford to encrypt their products partly because they don’t make money with advertising which tends to be the driving force behind the abuse of free internet services. 

WhatsApp is another encrypted internet product, thanks to the leadership of its original founders before the company was handed over to the user data abuser in chief, Mark Zuckerberg. 

This protection, however, may be short lived as this messaging (free) service may soon be paid for with user data as WhatsApp may introduce advertising on the platform in the near future.

Having said all of these things about free internet products. It has to be said that  free has been good for the internet. Where would we be without free. Google search and Gmail would have been impossible without free. Lockdown would have been a nightmare without free Zoom. 

We, therefore, cannot afford to throw away the freemium model in its entirety. It is however one thing to give up something to get something for free. It is something else altogether  to give up your privacy for getting something for free. It is that part of free that should not be allowed. Giving up our data for getting a free service should be clearly explained to users and not hidden in long and confusing legal jargon.

Every user should be in the position to grant permission with easy to understand options if they are to give away their data. At the same time it should not be assumed by internet giants that user data is free for the taking. At some point internet giants need to pay users for their data. Internet global organisations need to figure out data pricing models to determine the true value of user data. Whilst this is still being determined, users of internet products should not be given an impossible choice of compromising their privacy for free usage of internet products.

Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-In-Chief of Fast Company (SA) magazine. He also serves as the chairman of the IEEE Open Data Initiative, which is working on determining the economic value of Open Data. You can reach out to him on Twitter via: @WesleyDiphoko​

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