“Free” as in “free lunch”

Too long ago, when I was a sprog growing up, my elders and betters drummed into me in no uncertain terms that there was “no such thing as a free lunch”. At the time, I was going to school and my lunches were either provided by my parents or paid for by them, so as far as I was concerned my lunches were free. However, I soon appreciated what they meant as I approached adulthood. It is a very rare event, if it happens at all, that someone gives you something for free without some ulterior motive.

You, my friend, are reading this article. You probably didn’t have to pay anything to read it (or nothing extra from your usual ISP and computer costs anyway). Myself, and Free Software Magazine give it to you for free. What is our ulterior motives then? Read on...

The event that triggered this particular blog entry was an article at the BBC news site entitled MySpace to sell search function. This got my brain cells working.

The question I asked myself: were the people who signed up to MySpace.com aware that the search engine there would be hocked off to the highest bidder? If not, do people care? I ask myself do these things worry me? The current answer has to be no. I could use their engine or not as I felt fit, and I do not.

MySpace.com is a Social Networking Service, and by no means is it the only one, their are lots of them, Wikipedia has a list of the more notable ones. They make their money of course by selling advertising space on your web site. On this tack, the search engines, such as Google, Yahoo and MSN, make their money by selling advertising space with the results of the search, selecting the advertisement to display based on the search criteria itself.

There is nothing wrong with these advertisements, after all it is entirely up top the viewer to click on these advertisements, and even then there is no obligation to actually purchase the wares. It is worth pointing out though that these advertisements influence us to some degree, and effect the way we spend our money. It doesn’t take a genius to see that, if they didn’t have this effect, they wouldn’t exist.

This brings us to this article. If you are reading this on Free Software Magazine’s site, you will see adverts to the left of you and adverts to the right of you. At the top of the page you will see adverts above you, and even adverts in a box within the article’s area itself. (This is the case at the time of writing, I am assuming it is the case at time of reading). If you are reading a copy of this at any other site you are likely to see the same sort of spread of adverts there. These adverts help pay for Free Software Magazine’s expenses (or the other site’s if applicable). Regrettably, not enough is left over to pay cash to authors or editors at the moment, however they enable you to view the site for free.

Except it is not though. The advertisements cost you, the consumer, money. They effect the way we spend our money, and they need to charge that little bit extra to pay for all those ads.

Technology is not stopping there though. As mentioned, the search engines are tuning adverts to the criteria entered. The “ads by goooooooogle” panels display ads that are based on the content of the page. These are still uncontroversial as they stand as well, but it goes further.

The “Social Networking Service” sites have a database of their client’s interests. Is that for sale? I am aware they have a privacy policy, but how much does that policy actually protect their clients’ privacy? Is it worth the paper it’s not written on? Time, no doubt, will tell.

Technological advancements are being made all the time in this area. Google have just invented a way to present web resources based on the TV program you’re watching, it’s only a small step to see contextual adverts follow the same route. Google have a “Do no evil” slogan they like to emphasize, but it didn’t prevent them from contributing to the Great Firewall of China. Other web service companies have no problems monetizing information gathered from their users, and companies can always be bought by other companies. We may now be getting these services for “free”, or at least with the small expense of some screen estate being taken over by advertisements, but as targeting gets more sophisticated, and the bigger boys lock out the smaller ones, in the future the expense may be control of how we live.

The “Free” in “Free Software Magazine” deals with freedom as in freedom of speech, not free as in no-cost. These are not the same. It is not inconceivable that our lust for free-as-in-no-cost web services could cost us our freedom-as-in-speech choices we currently enjoy on the internet.

This leaves me to explain my personal motives for providing free content here. I like to think I am a Champion of Freedom, Hero of the Right to Choose and generally qualified to fly about my city with my underpants outside my trousers. Maybe I simply like to see my writing in print, even if it is in virtual print, because it gives me an illusion of feeling important. I think it would be very nice if either Free Software Magazine or my articles (or both) become popular and in demand enough for me to receive some cash for my efforts. For that to happen the money would probably need to come from advertising revenue. I wonder, does that make me part of the problem? Is there really a problem? Should I care? Answers on a postcard please to...


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