The Users are the Suppliers

I want to suggest that for Facebook, Google, Twitter and companies like them, the users are the suppliers.

In a production and a commercial process, several bodies and elements are involved:
  • Producers that utilize means of production
  • Suppliers of inputs to the production process
  • Customers that purchase products
Let's eliminate. We (the users) are not the customers because we don't pay for the products of those websites.

What are the products? Since a product is something that a customer is purchasing, for those websites, the advertisements are the products that the advertisers (customers) purchase from the websites.

We are definitely not the means of production .

We supply our personal information to those website that use it to target the ads to us in order for us to click them - which generates income to the websites.

Our personal information is the input to making the products sold.

As those sites usually do, they don't pay us cash for our inputs. They let us use the means of production.

We feel that this is a fair deal. After all, they give us something of value for free.

Intuitively, we know that making those websites cost a lot of money – personnel, offices, servers, internet connection to the servers and so on.

What we have no intuition for is the value of the personal information we supply to those companies.

Since personal information is something we as suppliers don't have way of quantifying by Dollars, we can't know if we are getting a fair deal for our input.

Looking at the logical process above, it is clear that the inputs we supply to the websites have commercial value. Without it, the websites will not be able to sell their products to their customers.

And here I connect with the description of Dave Winer – Users are Hamsters. Since we don't know the Dollar value of our personal information to the websites, it is in their best interest to hide it from us. It is in their best interest to keep us as happy hamsters and not question the situation.

Where do we go from here?

The big issue here is entitlement.

The entitlement relationship between producer and customer are made clear in the process of purchase.

As citizens, we use the roads for free and feel entitled to good service because we have paid our taxes that made those roads possible.

But what is our entitlement as suppliers to websites that make money for an input we give them for free?

What control should we have over our personal information that is sold between companies?

I am not a historian of economics but I feel we are now in new situation that we don't have precedents that enable us to understand it.

Until the era of the web, our personal information was something that was hard to collect, analyze and transfer.

We need to start thinking of this situation and develop ideas that will enable us to understand the current situation and enable us to make society wide decisions and personal decisions.

Published - November 2010

About the author: Hanan Cohen is an Israeli internet activist currently working as the Webmaster of the Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem.
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