If you're not paying for something, you're not the customer, you're the product.

That's an old adage that has become more relevant in the age of the Internet and big data. Why do Google and Facebook do so much free stuff for you? Because you are what they are selling to their real customers.

So it appears with Paul Manafort. Manafort back in mid-2016 offered his services to Trump for free, according to news accounts. "He would do this in an unpaid capacity," Trump friend Thomas Barrack told the Trumps in pitching Manafort.

But remember, if you're not paying, you're not the customer, you're the product.

So who was the customer?

Check out this passage from last night's Washington Post article:

In one April exchange days after Trump named Manafort as a campaign strategist, Manafort referred to his positive press and growing reputation and asked, "How do we use to get whole?"
Manafort spokesman Jason Maloni said Wednesday that the email exchanges reflected an "innocuous" effort to collect past debts.
"It's no secret Mr. Manafort was owed money by past clients," Maloni said.

If this quote and its context are correct (I say "if" because we're getting it third hand and the context isn't quoted), then Manafort was trying to use his ties to Trump to get money from his foreign clients, who were generally Putin-connected.

We know Manafort tried to arrange meetings between Putin-connected Russian officials and the Trump campaign. Was he selling his Trump connections to the Russians? We know he has been paid money to serve as an agent of pro-Putin forces. It often seems as though he wasn't fastidious about filing as a foreign agent when he worked as a foreign agent.

If these dots connect the way they appear — and it's all speculation now — then this looks like something other than Trump collusion with Russia, which has always seemed ill-defined and far-fetched. It looks like Trump was the product, Manafort was the seller, and Russian President Vladimir Putin's friends were the customers.

Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's commentary editor, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Tuesday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.