No Marketing, No Service

The ostensibly ‘free’ wifi you often get at pubs, hotels and other locations usually requires some form of sign-up to access the service. These are usually fairly dumb captive portals that ask for name, email address and permission to send you marketing. No great deal – if you don’t like it there are plenty of fictional names that work equally well.

However, one particular hotspot from a well-known brand stuck out the other day. To use their service you must provide your mobile number – “it’s just to confirm your identity,” they say, but the terms and conditions state something else entirely: by signing in you are automatically opted into marketing. If you opt out, you lose your right to use the service.

In other words, receive our junk or no wifi for you.

This is – on the face of things – not that unreasonable. You get something for free, and you receive wifi. Except, it’s not quite free, is it? Personal details; attention. Each has an implicit value: just look at advertising, where space on TV, radio, print and online is usually charged based on attention potential – i.e. how many people might see it.

So, is it really ‘free’? My feeling is not, but it’s hard to draw the line. A captive portal with a simple ‘Go Online’ and a banner ad is equally ‘non-free’ by this equation. Perhaps it’s the combination of giving up a mobile number and receiving marketing? But what’s the value…?

For me, the value of getting the wifi was less than the value of the data and rights I would have to exchange for it. From person to person, this is going to vary. Some might think nothing of it – in fact, given this is the company’s business model, I’d wager most do just that. In any case, the value of the ‘stuff’ we possess (data, privacy, attention) is unlikely to be always zero, and there is a limit to the amount people will give in return for a service or item.

Whatever – I didn’t sign up. Thankfully my mobile had signal and whatever I needed wasn’t that important anyway.