I pay Microsoft USD 99 per year for email services for my family members.

I pay YouTube (Google) 20 bucks / month for YouTube music and ad-free YouTube (one of the biggest upgrades in my life was shutting down ads in YT).

I donate USD 3/month to the Signal Foundation, the operator of the Signal messaging app.

Why do I do this, and why should you consider this too?

Have you ever asked yourself how much does it cost to operate Facebook? Or WhatsApp? Or Gmail? Or any other free online service you use? Financing a large-scale online service costs hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Or even more. Yet we login into these services and get to use all their goodies for free. How does that work? How do these companies finance themselves?

They make money by profiting from the data you share with them. There is no elegant way to put this. YOU are the product they sell to advertisers, who compete with dollars for your attention. These companies DO NOT sell your data. Your data is their most valuable asset, they won’t sell it. Instead, they sell access to YOU. Ad placements.

This business model is corrupted, and leads to conflicting interests and nefarious behaviours. But this business model is facilitated because of us. We, and our false expectations, incentivise companies to offer online services for free, in exchange for getting personal data for monetisation purposes.

It is up to us, the consumers, to rethink the way we engage with online services, and reset our own false expectations. You see, operating online services at scale is hard and costs a lot of money. This money needs to come from somewhere. And that’s fair game. The money should come from us all, because we are the ones receiving value from these services. They are valuable to us. It should be like that. Once the users are the source of income, online companies will pivot their behaviour to be user-centric, not advertiser-centric.

What does this mean for you? Starting taking a closer look at the online services you use. How do those companies make money? Who pays them? Who is the customer, and who is the product? I strongly encourage you to scrutinise this more carefully, and bring your attention to companies whose financial incentives are aligned with the protection of your data and you as a person. This means you’ll have to spend some money. Because the money needs to come from somewhere. But trust me, it’s better if the money comes from you instead.

Not everyone will be willing to or able to pay for all online services they use. And that’s OK. In this case, you are making a conscious decision to pay for these services not with money, but with your personal data. As long as this is a conscious, informed decision, and you set your expectations around privacy accordingly, there is also room for free online services.