‘Free’ isn’t free on the Internet


Recently, Google, the great and powerful Internet presence, angered a great number of people by dropping its free RSS feed service, Google Reader. Users were outraged that Google had the gumption to take Reader away from them. The thing is, this shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.

As our lives have migrated to digital mediums in greater quantities, we should really be more concerned about the identity of the wizards behind the Internet’s great curtain and what their intentions are. After all, very few things in this world are truly free. To test this theory, leave your seat right now and ask the nearest person to buy you lunch. I’ll wait.

So, what did you have to trade? Your time? Some dignity? An IOU? The same concept applies to the Internet. Instead of money, however, most of the “free” services we take for granted are funded by a combination of our attention and our information: the company in question makes its cash through advertising and selling what they know about us.

Even if these service providers are not the monsters some believe them to be, we often forget that what we’re using is a service provided not for the social benefit of society, but to make money in some fashion. If a for-profit service stops making money, it only has so much time left before its parent company pulls the plug. One day, unimaginable though it may be, there may not be a Facebook.

If so much of our lives is going to be conducted online, I believe there is a need for publicly-owned, not-for-profit Internet services, just as there are public parks and public social services. If Facebook is such a vital communication tool, why don’t we nationalize it and turn it into a public service? The only retort you can offer is based on money, isn’t it?

And it’s not like this is a foreign concept, either, or a never-been-tested utopian theory. In the stone age of the 1980s, many cities and communities maintained a public Bulletin Board System, or BBS. You could dial into these on a local phone number with your computer and have access to a messaging and posting system that allowed you to communicate with anyone who was online in the city. Some even had the ability to communicate with users of other Bulletin Board Systems, a sort of electronic postal service. The best part is that this required no monthly fee — just the hardware to access it.

If governments and people could get behind this idea, the anxiety of losing our beloved and necessary tools of the digital realm would be a thing of the past. Decisions would not be made based on a shareholder’s needs, but instead to meet the needs of the community at large.