Thursday, 7 August 2014

Information pretends to be free

Nicholas Sheppard

Someone recently suggested to me that the cyberlibertarians who shouted "information wants to be free" in the 1990s might be responsible for the present-day Internet being awash with targeted advertising and the data collection that it entails.

As I understand the argument, the claim is that academic free-content advocates — themselves largely supported by public funding — insisted that the Internet provide information free of charge. Requiring funding to actually create and maintain web sites, companies like Google and Facebook turned to advertising.  And so our searches, profiles, news, emails and much else besides now come with corporate messages attached.  Even better, Internet companies are able to leverage the intimate knowledge that they have of their users to better serve the messaging needs of their actual customers (the advertisers).

Whatever the merits of this argument, I think it it does expose two elephants in the room when it comes to making information free: public funding and advertising.  Little information of any substance is ultimately free — most "free" information is paid for by the public or by advertisers.  I guess most of the rest is donated by contributors after doing whatever it is they do to earn a salary.

Now, I think there are some good arguments for providing public information at public expense, and plenty of us accept advertising in return for free-to-air television, inexpensive newspapers and convenient search engines. But would it sound so cool to be proclaiming "information wants to be funded by the public" or "information wants to carry advertising"?  And would anyone sign up for a service boasting that "your information wants to be free to advertisers"?

When I worked in copyright and digital media, I sometimes heard suggestions that the music industry needed to find a business model that "feels free".  Google certainly seems to make plenty of money this way, even if the return on investment for social media companies is open to debate.  But "feels free" implies "ignorant of the cost", leaving search engine and social media users surprised and offended whenever the data collection activities of their "free" service providers are disclosed.

All this got me wondering: would anyone actually pay for searching or social media if it meant they could do so without advertising and without being the subject of data collection machinery?  (Let's assume for the moment that we can trust our paid-for search engines and social media providers to ignore or discard whatever data we send through their services.)

Some people do pay for email services and personal web sites — though a quick survey of my address book shows that the great majority are using either a work address, or one of Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail.  Most of the exceptions, including me, are professional computer technologists for whom setting up email systems and websites is all in a day's work.  Many people also pay for access to online virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and Second Life, and some pay for online dating services.  But I don't think I've ever heard of anyone paying to search the web or join a social network.

I went on to discover (using a free search engine of course) that some psychologists have argued for the existence of a "zero price effect" by which users choose products offered at no charge even when, all things considered, paying for a similar product would serve them better.  Lawyers following these psychologists consequently argue that legislators ought to consider restricting the use of "free". That's not to say that we should outlaw services and products offered without charge, but that we should describe ad-supported, publicly-funded and other indirectly-supported services as such and not as "free".  As David Adam Friedman puts it, "the free offer with accompanying obligation should no longer be considered free".

So let me re-phrase my earlier question: given the choice between a search engine or social network that collected your money, or one that collected your data, which would you choose?  Because "free" is not an option.

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