Friday, 19 April 2013

"Free" phone calls: what's in it for Facebook?

Talk freely

There are plenty of Android apps to phone for free. Google Voice, Skype, fring, Viber, TextMe, Vonage, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

All those free apps have one thing in common. They need money to feed their hungry programmers.

Many VoIP apps use their free "VoIP-only" service as a method to advertise their paid offers to call landlines and cell phones. SkypeOut is the leader of the pack, Vonage and fring are among the followers. Apps like Skype and fring display ads to generate income. TextMe has taken mobile advertising a step further: you can earn "free" minutes if you watch advertorials or download "free" apps full of in-app purchasing options of the Farmville farm cash flavour. Viber doesn't seem to have any way to monetise their app yet, but sooner or later they're gonna sell Skype-like services or break their promise to stay free of ads.

And now Facebook enters the VoIP market. They've been testing it in some countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada, and the UK, and they just added USA to the list of places where you can sell your soul over the phone call your Facebook friends for free. It won't be long until Facebook calls go global.

Free, sure. But how do you pay them back? Mark Zuckerberg needs to pay the rent, you know?

What's on your mind?

Facebook is gonna slap ads on your calls for sure, one way or another. And given Facebooks privacy track record, there may be a very dark side to their "free" calls. Because if you don't pay for the product, then you are the product. And Facebook doesn't give you away for free. They want to sell you on the market for as much money as legally possible.

Advertising is the currency in this transaction. And just like there are cheap pesos and expensive Bitcoins, not all ads are created equally. That's why Facebook doesn't want to show you just any random ad. They want to show you targeted ads based on what they believe to be your interests, no matter if you'd rather keep those interests to yourself. Because the more of your personal data goes into the ad, the higher the payout.

To sell you to the highest bidder for the highest price, Facebook needs to know what's on your mind. That's why Facebooks status update textbox literally reads "What's on your mind?" But do you really write everything that's on your mind in there?

When you go out to movies, restaurants, and concerts you let the entire world know what a great time you had. And maybe you annoy all your Facebook friends with all those viral video ads you click on. Or worse. Being born and raised in a country with an atheist majority, I've unfriended quite a few people because they kept posting about how great their god is each and every day. Political propaganda, birthdays, weddings, babies, deaths in the family, it all goes on Facebook. You may even be guilty of clicking the "Share on Facebook" button right here on android underground. And let's not even get started on all those pictures of your cat.

Yes, Facebook has turned the world into ancient Egypt. We worship cats and write on walls about it.

What you don't tell Uncle Facebook

Frequent poster and lurker alike, there is some stuff we'll never share on Facebook. Some things are just not meant for all to see. Are your debts so bad that your car got repossessed? Did the ATM eat your credit card because you defaulted on your payments yet again? Got diagnosed with depression or a sexually transmitted disease? Are you about to divorce?

Your credit score is worth a lot. And some advertisers will pay big money if you can tell them who suffers from embarrassing diseases. Trouble with your employer? About to divorce? Lawyers like to know so they can offer you their legal services, and everybody knows those sharks have business ethics on par with Haliburton and Berlusconi's media empire. No matter what secrets you may have, they're a business opportunity for someone out there.

Facebook wants to know. Everything. They just need a way to make you tell it all to them.

We have ways to make you talk

There's Facebook Chat to talk in private, but not many people use it because MSN and WhatsApp have most of the market. Google mines your Gmail to pick ads, but Facebook didn't manage to copy that trick. Sure, every Facebook member has a free Facebook email address, but most people don't even know they have one. And for obvious reasons websites about collection agencies, gonorrhea, or drug addiction don't have Facebooks "Like" button on them.

Enter Plan B. or is it Plan C or D already?

By letting you call your friends for free through Facebooks servers, they have a chance to listen in on things that you would never write on your Facebook wall. Just think of the advertising opportunities!

Calling your doctor because the wild night with the girl that looked better with every beer left you with a burning itch "down there?" Asking your parents for money because the supermarket refused your credit card? Talking with your sister about your upcoming divorce? If you do it through Facebook they can send it all through their speech recognition software and extract some extremely valuable keywords from your extremely private phone calls. If their programmers are really smart (and they are!), their code could even read your mood from the way you talk. Drunk when you're calling your ex? Facebook will know.

So if you call through Facebook Messenger and you suddenly see ads for legal counsel, Alcoholic Anonymous, payday loans, and cheap Zoloft in neutral packaging, there's no need to wonder how Facebook knows. You told your friends, therefore you told Facebook. "Like" it or not.

Why waterboard people if there are much more effective ways to make 'em talk? A free VoIP app can be a goldmine if you're good at data mining. Remember the old saying that your grandma taught you? "There's no such thing as a free lunch unless you are the lunch."

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