If You’re Not Paying for the Service You’re the Product

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch (TANSTAAFL) is a phrase made famous by Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. In the book the people who inhabit the moon periodically say “TANSTAAFL,” as a reminder that nothing comes for free. The Internet has become the biggest embodiment of this fact. Most Internet services are “free.” Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter are just a handful of examples of services that cost users nothing and are therefore advertised as free. Anybody who understands the concept behind TANSTAAFL knows that these services aren’t free. In fact if you’re not paying for a service then there’s a very good chance that you’re the product. Normally this means your personal information is sold to advertisers but sometimes an Internet company takes things to the next level. Hola, a virtual private networks (VPN) provider that offered its service for “free”, is an example of this:

Hola is easy-to-use browser plugin available in the Google Chrome Store with currently more than 6 Million downloads. But, unfortunately, Hola could be used by hackers to maliciously attack websites, potentially putting its users at risk of being involved in illegal or abusive activities.

Hola uses a peer-to-peer system to route users’ traffic. So, if you are in Denmark and wants to watch a show from America, you might be routed through America-based user’s Internet connections.

However, Hola is not leaving a chance to make money out of a free service. It has been selling access to users’ bandwidth for profit to a third-party service called Luminati, which then re-sells the connections, Hola founder Ofer Vilenski confirmed.

I would never trust a free service provider that required me to install special client software because of the threat of shit like this. Facebook and Twitter are limited in the damage they can do by the fact that their service doesn’t rely on local software (unless you use their apps on your mobile device). Neither service can, for example, sell your bandwidth. Hola, which relied on a Chrome plugin, could because it had software resident on its users’ systems. If somebody is offering a “free” service but requires the installation of special software just remember TANSTAAFL. Since it’s free you’re the product and with resident software on your system the service provider can offer its real customers a lot more than a mere web page can.