LONDON – A reader writes: “Dear John Naughton, As you write about the Internet, I wondered if you knew how long it takes Yahoo to get back to people. I have an iPad, but went to the library to print a document (attached to an email). Yahoo knew I wasn’t on my iPad and asked me to name my favorite uncle. I replied, but Yahoo didn’t like my answer, so locked me out for 12 hours. I can’t get into my email account. Getting to the Help page is really difficult. Do you ever speak to anybody at Yahoo? I had to open another non-Yahoo email account, so I opened a Gmail account and it looks to have the same problem. Not easy to get in touch with anybody when things go wrong. I am sure I am not the only one who wants to discuss my problem with a human being. Yours sincerely …”
Dear Reader: I hear (and sympathize with) your pain, but we need to get something straight. Yahoo email is ostensibly a “free” service (as indeed is Gmail). That doesn’t mean that it costs you nothing, only that you don’t pay cash up front for it. You do however “pay” in a different currency, namely your personal data. This is valuable to Yahoo because they can convert it into revenue; it enables them — and their commercial partners — to target advertisements and other marketing propositions at you and people like you.
There’s nothing unusual about Yahoo’s EULA, by the way. The “agreements” required by Google, Facebook and other online companies are cast in the same mold, in the sense that they are all pathologically asymmetrical. That is to say, they require you to accept all kinds of conditions imposed by them, while explicitly exempting them from any obligations whatsoever.
Which explains why, when you go looking for what you may innocently think of as customer support, you find that no such thing exists. That’s because you are not a “customer,” you’re merely a user. And a user, moreover, who has explicitly (if unwittingly) waived their rights to any kind of support. It also explains the adage: if the service is free, then its users are its product.
When the history of our time comes to be written, people will marvel at the way that billions of people were seduced into the kind of one-sided agreements they have struck with outfits such as Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple. In the case of Facebook, the historical analogy that comes immediately to mind is sharecropping — the agricultural system in which a landowner allowed tenants to use his land in return for a share of the crops produced on it and which was once a staple of the Southern states of the United States. Its virtual equivalent is the Facebook system: a billion people till Master Zuckerberg’s land, creating all the content that is then harvested by him and his advertiser buddies. The only difference is that on Facebook the sharecroppers don’t get any share of the proceeds. They’re just croppers.
And here’s the really weird bit: the croppers are absurdly pleased with their lot. They get to post photographs of themselves drunk, sober, recumbent and upside-down. They get to “Like” their friends’ jokes and status updates and to organize parties and social events without having to use obsolete media such as email. And in the process they “pay” for this entertainment with their privacy and their personal data, apparently without batting an eyelid. Like I said: weird.
But back to your problem with Yahoo. Everyone who has been in your position has experienced the frustration that drove you to write. Why do these companies not provide telephone support lines with human beings at the other end? The answer is simple: call centres cost money and are only necessary if a company is compelled, by law or by competitive pressure, to support its customers. Your problem is that you’re not a customer of Yahoo. Its customers are advertisers who want to exploit its network and what it knows about its users. And I bet there’s a support line for them, staffed by a real human being.
So if you want an email service that provides the equivalent of a helpline, I’m afraid you’ll have to pay for it.
Yours sincerely, John.