Dollars for Data : The Indicator from Planet Money From Google Maps to Yelp to Instagram, the internet gives us access to all sorts of services without having to pay a cent. But are they really free?
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Dollars for Data

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Dollars for Data

Dollars for Data

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Cardiff Garcia.



VANEK SMITH: How was your weekend?

GARCIA: It was excellent. I also happen to know that my weekend was lazier and less productive than yours.

VANEK SMITH: It would've been hard to have a more productive weekend than I did. Let me just walk you through it. On Saturday, I watched a bunch of YouTube videos about how to unclog a sink. Then I unclogged my sink.

GARCIA: Whoohoo (ph).

VANEK SMITH: Whoo (ph). Then after that, I put my sink back together. Then I went to meet a friend for dinner, and I used Google Maps to figure out how to get there. While I was on the train, I Yelped around for a restaurant. Of course I listened to some podcasts. And then when I got out of the subway, the sun was setting. It was really beautiful. So I took a photo, and then I posted that photo on Instagram because, you know, you can never have too many (laughter) sunset photos on Instagram.

GARCIA: Yeah, there's a shortage of those.

VANEK SMITH: A shortage of sunset photos. And here's the thing. I paid for none of this, none of these services. And so I looked up what I would've paid for all those things. A plumber for the sink, at least a hundred bucks if you can even get one in Brooklyn on a Saturday; a Zagat's guide - Zagaht (ph) - I never know - 10 bucks; a map of New York, $3; a roll of film and prints, a book on tape in place of a podcast. And when I added it up, it was about $144.

GARCIA: That's what you would have paid in I guess 1997.


VANEK SMITH: Exactly. This is THE INDICATOR. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. Today's indicator is 144 bucks - what Stacey saved over the weekend.

VANEK SMITH: I got $144 worth of services for free in one afternoon.

GARCIA: But, Stacey, if we're being honest, you know, those services weren't really for free. You were paying for them with your data.

VANEK SMITH: That is true. I mean, I told these companies where I was going, where I was eating. They know who feels obligated to heart my sunset photos. And I traded that information for free service.

GARCIA: But was it a fair trade? That's the question I think we have to ask ourselves here because it's possible that, Stacey, your data was actually worth more than a Yelp review or the subway route that you got from Google Maps. Maybe these companies actually owe you money.

VANEK SMITH: I like where this is going. I really like where this is going.


VANEK SMITH: When I use Google and Facebook and Instagram, I think of myself as a consumer or a customer. Glen Weyl is not OK with that.

GLEN WEYL: I don't think it's consumer. I think it's worker. I want to stop calling people consumers.

VANEK SMITH: Glen is an economist at Yale and author of a book coming out in May called "Radical Markets."

WEYL: Data is something that is useful to companies in producing products that we all like. It is incredibly intimate, and it belongs powerfully to us. So all of those traits sound a lot to me like work. They sound like labor.

GARCIA: What Glen is saying here is that when we hand over our data to Twitter or Snapchat or whatever, we are working for those companies. And they ought to pay us for that.

VANEK SMITH: But, I mean, I am not making anything. I'm not toiling away. I am literally posting a photo of the sunset and getting validation from my friends as a result. And I'm getting these services for free. So how does that work?

WEYL: What we call work changes a lot over time. So our concepts of what is work and what is fun depend on what a society needs and values.

VANEK SMITH: And also, Glen says, just because work is enjoyable doesn't mean we shouldn't get paid for it. In fact, Glen thinks it's bad for our economy that we are not getting paid for our tweeting and YouTubing (ph) and candy crushing.

GARCIA: Candy crushing?

VANEK SMITH: Yes. Don't pretend like you don't candy crush. You know you do, right?

GARCIA: Not commenting, moving on quickly.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, yeah, there we go. There we go.

GARCIA: First, Glen says, there's the issue of where the money goes. So if you look at Facebook and Walmart, Facebook is worth about twice as much as Walmart by market capitalization. But Walmart has more than a million employees in the United States. So some cut of the money that Walmart makes from selling its products goes to a lot of people, goes to a lot of workers.

VANEK SMITH: Facebook, on the other hand, only has about 25,000 workers, so the money it makes goes to way fewer people. Glen says that is because Facebook is getting people to work for free. Millions of us are creating value for Facebook every day. Facebook and its employees get wealthier but most of us don't.

WEYL: You know, you said it's a bleak future. That's a pretty bleak future, right? That's a future where the overwhelming majority of money is going to accrue to a few entrepreneurs and the owners of wealth rather than to workers.

GARCIA: And the part about not being paid, that leads us to problem number two because when we're not getting paid, companies take whatever data we give them. And that is not always great.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. For instance, I was late to meet my friend because Google Maps did not know that my subway stop was closed. I mean, if Google Maps paid me, I might alert them to that and Google's service would be better.

GARCIA: And this actually goes both ways. So if we paid for Google Maps as its customers, we'd be more demanding. We might call to complain that, hey, Google, you should know about the closed subway stop. Why isn't it in there? And Google would be incentivized to offer us a better service especially because if we were paying for Google Maps, then other competitors might see that this is now a service that they can charge money for. They'd enter the marketplace, and that would further incentivize Google to make its product better.

WEYL: The reason that Facebook doesn't want to charge is it's afraid that if it charged that there would be other alternatives. But when you don't know what you're paying, it's much easier for them to keep you locked in. I want to see companies compete and say to people, look; you shouldn't be taking advantage of - we will pay you a fair price for your data. I want to see people get aware, cyber woke.

VANEK SMITH: We need to immediately trademark cyber woke.

GARCIA: Stacey...

VANEK SMITH: That can be our new job (laughter).

GARCIA: ...Stop trying to make cyber woke happen. Like fetch, it ain't happening, all right?

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Like fetch, it has happened. You're quoting fetch.

GARCIA: And wokeness (ph) is great. But, Stacey, you cannot pay your gas bill with wokeness.

VANEK SMITH: Put a dollar sign on this. How much are Cardiff and I owed sitting here?

WEYL: So right now mostly what you're owed is some reasonable share of the money that they're making off all the advertising that they're getting based on your data, which, you know, depending on exactly how active you are on the Internet, someone like you guys maybe could earn a few hundred dollars, maybe a thousand dollars a year when you add up all the different sources. That's not a lot of money. It's not nothing.

GARCIA: Speak for yourself. That sounds great.

VANEK SMITH: It is a lot of money. But if you consider the value of what I got for free on one Saturday afternoon - $144 dollars - if the value of my data is a thousand dollars a year, I am clearly the winner in this scenario. The value of the services that I'm getting far outweighs the value of my data, of my work. Sounds like I'm getting a deal. Like, it sounds like I'm getting a really good deal.

WEYL: Well, you know, look; I don't think that the key aspect here is, on net, how good of a deal or not how good of a deal are you getting? The key aspect is whether the economy is actually being productive by encouraging people to do the most valuable things.

GARCIA: Glen says that using Facebook, playing video games, posting photos, watching YouTube, all of that activity is creating wealth in the country right now - a lot of wealth. And as the data becomes a bigger part of the economy, this issue will become more important. So technology will replace a lot of jobs as people try to evolve and adapt, and it will be even more important that their role as wealth creators and workers is acknowledged and compensated. Glen thinks that in the future - and admits that this is all speculative calculation - a family of four might even be eligible to earn up to $20,000 a year from companies like Facebook and Google and the ones that may not even exist yet.

VANEK SMITH: Which is a lot of money and very interesting. But, Cardiff, I think the real news here is that all the hours that I have spent laying on my couch, watching YouTube videos of cats jumping into shoe boxes, I was working. That was work (laughter) that I was doing, which is wonderful. And I clearly deserve a vacation.


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