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Commercialisation of Privacy

Very recently, Meta made headlines by announcing to charge 14 USD per month for an “ad free experience” on their platforms Facebook or Instagram. A similar move has already been taken by Google on YouTube, which also sideline their ad-free experience with an increased crack-down on AdBlock-usage of their users. [1, 2]

Besides “added features” for the paid accounts, particularly Meta tries to imply increased privacy by their offer. Google is much more subtle in that regard, however in online-discussions, blogs and articles on assembly line style tech news sites, the argument of increased privacy by less advertisement is often made as well. After all, the privacy risks of web-advertisement are widely known to anyone who has used the internet in the past two decades. [3, 4, 5]

What remains is the impression that in order to gain privacy and shield against surveillance by mega corporations and data brokers, a small fee to exactly the same mega corporations may not be a bad deal at all.

The commercialisation of privacy is not a new phenomenon. As discussed in the past already, many tech companies tried to capitalise on the notion of privacy alone in the past already. This also leads to privacy being a social issue and poorer individuals being more affected by surveillance than richer and more privileged classes.

Although charging a premium for a lie would be an unmoral business practice, whether these privacy promises are true or not, is not really important in the context of this blog post. The mere notion of charging an extra fee for privacy of an otherwise existing product and the promise of not selling or misusing users’ data is a poisoned deal. [6]

Paying for “Privacy”

On the other side, privacy (or the promise of it) has become its own business category and a “unique selling point” (USP) — See: ViOffice! Not selling user’s data may in fact be a financial disadvantage in the short term. Whether those are in fact real or opportunity costs. And hosting services in data centres whose operators do not sell traffic and meta information to third parties (or who themselves are surveillance capitalists) can be more expensive in some instances as well. In turn, privacy conscious service providers may need to charge more for their offerings than competitors.

So, whether a business or service provider wants to capitalise on the privacy USP or not, in the end there likely is still a premium for using a service that does not harvest and misuse people’s information. If not financial, that extra cost may be in the form of required knowledge to use alternative options or even host them themselves.

In the Open Source, privacy conscious community, there is a slight tendency to reach for solutions which work really well for a minority of individuals. Those that have the time, knowledge and other types of resources to learn about different ways of doing things and maybe even set them up themselves. And self-hosting has become substantially easier in the past few years, even for those that have mediocre technical knowledge.

However, while those (in comparison) very few individuals may very well shield themselves and their communities from data harvesting tech companies by self-hosting services and IT infrastructure, this is by no means sustainable for everyone. Down the line, this again means that privacy would be a privilege rather than a right and therefore becomes a social issue.

An alternative approach can be seen for example in the Fediverse Ecosystem, with Mastodon being at the forefront recently. Hundreds and thousands of small and medium-sized service providers offer access to their self-hosted social media platforms, which all are connected to one another by federalisation. Often times, those offers are purely altruistic and financed by donations, sometimes a fee is necessary to cover server costs. By leveraging the concept of financial solidarity, even those with little financial and technical resources can benefit.

The Attention Economy

Back to the mainstream platforms, things look more dire. While the consciousness for data protection and privacy has increased globally over the past decades, popular online platforms did not respond in the way one would hope for. Rather than adjusting data collection policies in a way that benefits users, mega corporations continuously try to muddy the water with superficial privacy claims. Often times, these turn out to be not in the interest of users at all and could lead to even more surveillance. [3, 4, 6, 7]

Not every online service is destined to be hosted in a decentralised fashion and federated like the Fediverse, XMPP or E-Mail. Most mainstream offers are designed by monopolists to strengthen their role and to distil into people’s minds the notion of a single hub of information, fun, conversation or whatever the platform is used for by others. While privacy appears to be an important topic among users, privacy cynicism and the “privacy paradox” is a rather strong factor for those that do not have resources to change anything or who simply have never known an alternative web. [6, 7, 8, 9]

So instead, a flashy announcement for more user privacy or an ambiguous subliminal suggestion within the already known walled garden ecosystem sounds rather intriguing. But while showing targeted ads surely is one main source of income for advertisement corporations like meta, selling user-data (interests) of their users to data brokers and other advertisers off-site is arguably equally essential for their business model. The mere collection and sharing of user data may not be stopped by buying the Meta or Google premium services. [8, 9, 10, 11]


Unfortunately, privacy does have a price. This may not always be financial, but the commercialisation of privacy — unfortunately — is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Wherever there is a market for harvesting and selling people’s information, there is also a market for protecting their information and also one for promising to protect their information. Of course, all three business models are vastly different, particularly as only one is in the interest of users. However, down the line, they all form the unfortunate situation of privacy as a social issue and (digital) self-determination as a privilege rather than a right.

What should be the goal for any privacy conscious service provider is to lower the barrier for entrance (financially as well as usability-wise) and foster a community that can make privacy-friendly services sustainable for everyone.


  1. Schechner, S. (2023): Meta Plans to Charge $14 a Month for Ad-Free Instagram or Facebook. URL: www.wsj.com
  2. Herbig, D. (2023): Youtube weitet offenbar Vorgehen gegen Adblocker aus. URL: www.heise.de
  3. Froehlich, N. (2022): The Truth In User Privacy And Targeted Ads. URL: www.forbes.com
  4. Estrada-Jiménez, J., Parra-Arnau, J., Rodríguez-Hoyos, A., Forné, J. (2016): Online advertising: Analysis of privacy threats and protection approaches. In Computer Communications, 100. P. 32-51. DOI: 10.1016/j.comcom.2016.12.016
  5. Sophie C. Boerman & Edith G. Smit (2023): Advertising and privacy: an overview of past research and a research agenda. International Journal of Advertising, 42:1, P. 60-68, DOI: 10.1080/02650487.2022.2122251
  6. Doctorow, C. (2020): How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. URL: onezero.medium.com
  7. Zuboff, S. (2019). The age of surveillance capitalism.
  8. van Ooijen, I., Segijn, C. M., & Opree, S. J. (2022). Privacy Cynicism and its Role in Privacy Decision-Making. Communication Research, 0. DOI: 10.1177/00936502211060984
  9. Lutz, C., Hoffmann, C. P., & Ranzini, G. (2020). Data capitalism and the user: An exploration of privacy cynicism in Germany. New Media & Society, 22, P. 1168-1187. DOI: 10.1177/1461444820912544
  10. Klosowski, T. (2023): How To Turn Off Google’s “Privacy Sandbox” Ad Tracking—and Why You Should. URL: www.eff.org
  11. Rodenhausen, D., Wiener, L., Rogers, K. Katerman, M. (2022): Consumers Want Privacy. Marketers Can Deliver. URL: www.bcg.com
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Jan is co-founder of ViOffice. He is responsible for the technical implementation and maintenance of the software. His interests lie in particular in the areas of security, data protection and encryption.

In addition to his studies in economics, later in applied statistics and his subsequent doctorate, he has years of experience in software development, open source and server administration.