Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

The High Cost of “Free”


There used to be plenty of good old Yankee skepticism in this country. You used to hear phrases like, “No such thing as a free lunch” and “If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.” Used to. Now, countless suckers are born every nanosecond.

Looking at the Internet, the word “free” is everywhere. Because you’ve paid for your computer (or tablet or phone) and you’re paying monthly for the Internet, you probably think you’ve already paid for these “free” things.

Yes, you brought that device and you pay for the Internet. But after that, isn’t everything—browsers, search engines, web pages—really free? Let’s take a closer look.

These words on this blog site, aren’t exactly free. While you’re reading this, my blog provider is advertising its services—and some of those services aren’t free. I’ve even found ads lurking among the comments to my blog.

Nothing new here. It was the basic idea of television: free programming—sponsored by advertising—over public airwaves. (An idea borrowed from newspapers, where advertising covered most of the costs of creating, printing, and distributing papers.)

The ad-sponsored “free” TV we watch on paid cable or satellite is no different from the ad-sponsored web pages we browse with our paid Internet. We pay, but still get ads—like the movies.

Apparently, we’ve all come to accept this arrangement. However, those “free” Internet programs and services don’t stop at advertising. They also gather information about everyone using those programs and services.

They not only use this information (e.g., tailoring ads specifically for each of us), they also sell the information we freely give them. Or haven’t you read the fine print of all those EULAs you so casually accepted? (I know, no one does.)

Add up all these costs associated with “free” access of the Internet: hardware, software, connection, web pages with advertising, and services harvesting our information to sell. It’s hard to know just how much this “free” stuff costs us.

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