TextMe: Free Commodities and Privacy

Once upon a time, I used to write about about something called Voice over IP or VoIP. They were magical initials at least in the formerly walled off world of telecom in the late 90s and early aughts. You could send your voice over the Internet for free! And if the called terminated on the old phone network, then you paid a small fee. Bizness loved it and startups formed and apps blossomed all premised on letting existing data networks carry voice, pics, and other media.

Nowadays, voice is like the peanuts and other small goodies that bars give away to get you to drink the high-profit swill. After Microsoft’s absorption of Skype, I thought the age of a VoIP-only startups was over for good since. Like bar buffets, VOIP is just another freebie feature in more general apps. I mean you wouldn’t start a peanuts-only cafe and charge for it? Ok, maybe you can do that in Brooklyn.

Looks like I’m a little premature. There’ve been a few new companies in recent years that have played variations on the theme of free messages and voice. Group Me comes to mind as well as SF-based Twilio, which provides easy APIs to SMS-enable an app.

In my inbox last week, I received an email to check out TextMe, which is a free SMS texting service you can access on your IOS and Android gadgetry. The real advantage here is that with TextMe you can message from data only devices, such as your iPad or Samsung Galaxy. The company gives you a free phone number that becomes your SMS address.

I suppose it could get confusing when you message friends from both your smartphone and tablet. In any case, why would you need TextMe when unlimited texting is a standard feature of most cell plans?

Not exactly sure, but “free stuff” is always hard for people to resist. But there’s no such thing as free even in the virtual world–either you’re fed ads or else you pay with the personal information that’s collected.

In the early days of ad-driven models, companies were blindly sending you promotions and blasting generic advertisements that would appear on your app. You could live with it. However, this was all before they started collecting every click, every bit of content sent, device identifiers, geo location, and on and on. Check out TextMe’s privacy statement if you want to see a more complete listing of what they’re interested in.

With the rise of data brokers, a topic I write about on another channel, I’d be a little more worried about signing away my “Customer Information”. And although Text Me is careful to say they’re not collecting personal identifiable information–the data that can easily identify you–they are scooping enough quasi-identifiers to pinpoint who you are.

Voice and text are low-cost commodities, kind of like water, which we’re all metered for. Thought experiment: what if the water utility lowered the price or made their service free in exchange for monitoring your usage. They water service guy comes by and installs devices on every faucet, toilet, shower, and backyard hose to collect granular time-stamped details on consumption patterns.

Would you sign up for that free service or instead pay for, what for most of us, is a small, manageable expense?

Thought so!

Photo credit: Palosirkka