Online advertising and consumer privacy will always be at loggerheads. A business built on online advertising is successful only when it uncovers consumer information; it absolutely thrives when it exploits it. The logic is impeccable, yet straightforward. Advertisers seek, and pay a lot more, to target consumers with specific traits and interests. Surreptitious software—riding on the deception of free products—relentlessly monitors your actions, clicks, and conversations with the primary motive of uncovering your personal habits and interests, so it may drop you into a “marketable and actionable segment” that is then packaged up and sold to advertisers.
In the online world, segmentation for advertisers faithfully translates to invasion of privacy for you and me. And this is where companies like Google and Facebook are complicit. Their model gave us this gem: “If you're not paying for the product, then you are the product.”
A recent glitch in Google Docs brought out new concerns around consumer privacy. This turned out to be a software bug that caused some documents to be flagged as abusive content, thus locking out even their authors. So perhaps Big Brother is not merely watching you—a fear actually expressed by many users.
Let's be clear. Software does get better when it can observe its user, thereby doing something smarter for the user within a given context. Spell checkers work this way. Their sole intention is to uncover your errors and offer you the chance to correct them. The implicit contract with the user is that all user information is restricted for this explicit purpose. This allows users to trust their spell checkers. But this trust cannot hold when there are powerful business incentives to channel user information into consumer characterizations, sold to the highest bidder.
However this might be spun, make no mistake: it becomes a flagrant invasion of your privacy.
Things get much worse when perpetrators turn out to be monopolies who can readily translate their dominance of the product market into their monopoly over your private information.
So it should come as no surprise that governments are often forced to step in to protect consumer privacy and fine the transgressors. Last year the European Union passed a sweeping set of data privacy rules called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Scheduled to go into effect in May 2018, this will require companies to seek explicit permission from users before serving them ads, among other restrictions. In a recent broadside on monopolistic competition, the EU imposed this record €2.4 trillion antitrust fine.
Now you may know that Zoho offers free versions of many of our products, that also have paid versions. But we have never served ads. And never will. The only way we make money is from the software license fees you pay us. So you never have to wonder if we're tracking your behavior to feed the ad monster. Offering free versions is simply a way for you to try our products—well-featured, and bereft of fine-print or subliminal intent—until you're ready and happy to pay us. (Check out this recent review of our free CRM.)
We're confident that you will. And I'll tell you why—we offer incredible software at an impossible price, that will never compromise your privacy.