Thesis #13

Cui Bono? (Who benefits?) is the first question you should ask before signing up for a ‘free’ online service

The Internet — and especially the Web — is full of exciting or intriguing free offers and services. And because something happens instantly or very quickly after you accept one of these invitations, there’s a strong incentive to do so. (As humans, we like instant gratification.) If the offer has been astutely composed, the process of acceptance will be ‘frictionless’ — a few clicks, filling in a text-box or two, clicking ‘accept’ to a set of Terms and Conditions which flash up before you can go any further. (And chances are that you will not take up the offer to have the 30-page small-print text emailed to you.)

Since there is no such thing as a free lunch, what is extraordinary is that so few people seem to ask the obvious question before signing up to a free service. It is “Cui Bono?”, which is Latin for “who benefits?” The glib answer is that you benefit — you get the free service, the new app, whatever. But the real answer is that the organisation behind the offer has a business model and an agenda — and benefiting you may not be top of the priority list. So there is a balance to be struck between the value of the benefit to you and the (usually hidden) costs of acceptance, which is another way of describing the benefits to the provider.

What’s strange is that we seem to accept ‘free’ offers in cyberspace much more readily than we would in real life. If someone accosts us in the street with an amazing ‘free’ offer, most of us run a mile. Why, then, are we more gullible in cyberspace?

Further reading

Rana Foroohar, “Big Tech makes vast gains at our expense”, Financial Times, 17 September, 2017.

Alex Hern, “I read all the small print on the internet and it made me want to die”, Guardian, 15 June, 2015.

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