Categories: Opinions & Insights5 min read

Free is not always better and not always free

Some of you may consider joining or sponsoring an online community that has a subscription fee. You may think, “Why would I do that? There are plenty of free options.” And there are. But there are hidden costs to free options that you should be aware of and know how to protect yourself from.

We’re all used to services that are paid for with advertising. Radio, newspapers, and network TV all grew in this way. The basic ad model is straightforward. In exchange for free programming, you agree to spend some portion of your time hearing or reading sponsored ads. At first, the Internet model seems similar. In exchange for your contact information and a willingness to view ads, you have access to a world of information.

The Internet model is different

However, the Internet model has grown beyond the simple ad equation we’re used to. Sites now capture and use data in many subtle and sophisticated ways. You may have heard the phrase, “if the service is free, then you’re the product.” This phrase means that free services often make profits by selling information about you or using information about you to sell you more stuff. The information collected often includes much more than the basic demographic data you fill out in your registration form. In addition, it may include things like your viewing habits, purchases, opinions, or physical locations. As an example, Facebook targets ads that can include 98 variables such as location, age, gender, number of credit lines, and age of your car and house. The Facebook business model enables its advertisers to use these data points to target ads to individuals and groups.

How does this work?

Let’s explore a bit about how this works. Your cell phone and the apps on it track the places you go as you live your life. You may have enabled third party apps because you want the services they offer. For example, pinpoint weather forecasts need to know your exact location to be helpful. Exercise tracking apps may collect location data to track your route. Those app vendors may sell your location data to other organizations. Often these companies aggregate data from many third party vendors, along with data from credit tracking firms or other demographic data.

Similar tracking happens when you’re visiting sights on your laptop or desktop computer. Unless you are careful, chances are that your activity is still being tracked, collected, and used for targeted ads or as part of a combined data set. The amalgamated data formed by this process creates a rich picture of who you are and what your situation is. Individuals or companies with bad intentions may buy the data or hack into it, giving them access to far more information about you than you may realize.

How can you protect yourself and your data?

This sounds scary. But there are ways you can protect yourself–while still getting the benefit of online tools and peer support. Use the tips below to protect yourself:

  • Use the privacy settings provided. Review privacy settings on the apps and websites you use. Start by setting controls narrowly and shutting off access. You can always open up access if you trust the organization. Review the apps’ privacy guidance and your setting choices frequently. Use privacy settings to limit the data about you that’s shared between apps.
  • Take time to review terms and conditions and privacy policies. It’s a cultural meme that nobody reads the terms and conditions. When you’re setting up an account, whether on a website or on an app, however, it really matters. Especially check out the sections that mention how your data is stored, used, and shared.
  • Periodically review what data apps and websites store about you. This option is not always available, but it is useful to review occasionally. You may also be able to delete some or all of your historical data.
  • Limit third-party access to your data. You may have to make choices between convenience and privacy. Before you grant third-party apps access to data about you, such as your locations or your demographic information, check their policies on sharing your info.
  • Choose carefully what you share. Information you post about your life or your health to friends may be used later in ad targeting that you may not appreciate.
  • Regularly purge apps and delete accounts that you’re not using. Even if you no longer use an apps, it may be collecting data about you. Deleting unused tools assures you that they aren’t still sending information about you. You may want to use the same approach with browser extensions, for similar reasons.


Above all, choose apps, companies, peer support programs, and websites that you trust. When it comes to sharing private information, you don’t want to be the product. This may mean that you pay a small fee to participate in a program or use a service. Think of such fees as a tradeoff like switching from network TV to cable or streaming services in order to avoid ads.

The Synergiq approach

Synergiq has built its peer support community business model on keeping your data safe and your privacy secure. This way, you can use it to connect with others who are like you without worrying about your privacy. The peers you find can offer you support, advice, or just listen as someone who “has been there.” Your data will not be sold and will not be shared with anyone except those you choose. You won’t receive ads–targeted or not. Now you can breathe a sigh of relief. Isn’t it nice not to be a product? To know your data is secure? To trust those around you and the site you’re posting on?


About the Author: Jan Oldenburg

As a long-time digital health advocate, I'm passionate about the role peer support can play in helping people connect, build relationships, and heal each other.


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