Your Money or Your Life

I'm writing this post for free. Bad idea. You're reading it for free. Bad idea.

In the debate -- welcomed by President Obama, though it wouldn't be occurring without the leaks he's trying to punish -- over government pursuit of our data, some folks are pointing out, as Sun's CEO Scott McNealy put it most bluntly, "You have zero privacy. Get over it." In this view, the Internet opened the door, the NSA just tiptoed through it.

Yes and no. Every day, we voluntarily upload mountains of data -- our thoughts, our jokes, our activities, our photos -- for at least part of the world to see. If we assume any degree of privacy for that material, we probably shouldn't be allowed to operate a television, much less a computer.

But we send emails to named recipients, we visit websites for our own information or entertainment. Despite the warnings from experts to encrypt everything but our underwear, we do those things with an expectation of privacy. The problem is that we do almost all those things for free.

Yes, we hear the triumphant cry of the early Internet enthusiasts ringing in our minds' ears: Information wants to be free. However, people's time and effort is never free. We donate it, as I'm doing right now, at the expense of something else, like sleeping. And information also wants a pony.

The people whose ingenuity and expertise have made all our online activities possible certainly weren't doing it for free. If you doubt that, check what Sergei Brin and Larry Page are driving these days. And at least since the advent of the web portal, online companies have engaged us in a bargain no less unproclaimed and undebated (if as of now less sinister) than the security-for-privacy deal the federal government has made on our behalf: our "free" activity in return for our transactional data, which is then used to lure advertisers. It's a cliche by now, but no less true for that: If you don't pay for the product, you are the product.

The Googles and Facebooks of the world might -- might -- not be so avid in collecting and storing our transactional data were that information the key to their only way of paying for the servers and Maseratis. If, in short, we paid for what we get on the Internet, the NSA might -- might -- have a lot less to collect on us.

So I'm suggesting, just before I get that nap, that part of the debate the president welcomed should be about how we pay for our Internet activity -- with our money or, transactionally speaking, with our lives.