Facebook fuss raises questions about who should pay for a 'free' internet

The question of what's a reasonable price for "free" services is getting a workout these days after the latest Facebook kerfuffle.
The question of what's a reasonable price for "free" services is getting a workout these days after the latest Facebook kerfuffle.

How much is “free” costing you these days?

And is it a reasonable price to pay?

Those questions are getting a strenuous workout with the kerfuffle over Facebook and the theft, or harvesting, depending on whose interpretation you buy, of user information and data.

But they aren’t new questions. They’ve been around as long as the enticement of getting something for nothing has been dangled in front of potential customers.

They’re not going away. If anything the intensity of the debate over the answers to those questions will grow, because they get to the heart of the business model upon which so much of what is described as the tech industry is based.

Those of us still standing in traditional media can personally testify to the consequences of a collision between a long-standing business model and a disruptive one.

Now it’s the turn of the disrupters to squirm a little.

Everyone knows there is no such thing as a free lunch, or free anything else. It’s more an issue of what’s actually being paid, and by whom.

Free delivery? We know the cost of getting that product to you is buried somewhere else in the overall price. Free information and entertainment, such as that delivered to you by television, radio and free publications? The costs to develop and deliver that content were underwritten by the advertisers, and by you, in the form of your time and attention to those ads. Free stuff from the government? Your tax dollars at work.

But the internet has taken free to an exponentially higher realm of existence.

Those web browsers and search engines that allow you to search the universe of knowledge? You’re not paying for those, nor are you paying for the email accounts widely in use, including gmail or the one included in the address at the bottom of this column.

YouTube, owned by Google, provides far more hours of content than you could ever hope to consume in multiple lifetimes. Twitter provides a platform to broadcast your pithy thoughts and snarky one-liners to the world. And wasn’t it nice of that Mr. Zuckerberg to provide you with an online bulletin board to post photos of your grandkids and your vacations, as well as your observations on any and every topic, for all the planet to see.

And it’s all free!

Um, not exactly (and not even taking into account the cost of physically connecting to the internet.)

There’s a saying that’s been around a while (its originator is unclear) and getting a lot of use now, that runs along the lines of: “If you're not paying for the product, you are the product.”

That’s not quite correct. In the internet age, what you’re paying with is not cash but information about you, your spending habits, your viewing preferences, anything someone might be willing to pay a provider of one of those supposedly free services. The information then becomes a product those companies can sell to someone else. Big data as an emerging tech-industry sector is entirely predicated upon the gathering, repackaging, sale and use of that information.

This isn’t exactly new. Businesses have been selling customer lists for years, a fact of life your columnist has known ever since a fit of bad handwriting rendered him with a middle initial he doesn’t have, but which subsequently appeared on hundreds of mailings. The modern internet-interconnected world, however, enables a level of detail old media and marketers couldn’t even dream of.

Does that bother you?

Skeptics would argue that it doesn’t. After all, everyone is informed of what’s going to happen to their information, through those "terms and disclosures" and privacy-policy statements we’re sure you read every last word of.

Furthermore, they would argue, the sour-grapes grousing about information harvesting is coming from traditional-media types who are still sore about Google and Facebook vacuuming up our customers and our ad revenue, and repurposing our content to sell their own ads. (Well, yeah, there is that.)

Those skeptics might have a point. Given how much people willingly, even happily, expose of their lives on multiple social-media platforms, privacy and commercial use of personal information doesn’t seem that big a deal. Maybe this whole thing will blow over once politicians get to hold a few grandstanding hearings.

Or perhaps people will rethink what they’re paying for “free” email or social media platforms and the value they place on their personal information. Tech and social media companies might be compelled by regulation or by changing consumer behavior to tweak their business model. Subscription and membership-fee models are gaining a tentative toehold in the business.

If nothing else, the current controversy has been useful in reminding people that “free” almost always comes at a price, and that the proper response to the come-on of “Have I got a deal for you!” should always be “What’s the catch?”

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at