Free does not equal good

The internet has a freedom problem. Not freedom of speech, or net neutrality, or freedom from bullying – although it has problems with all of those too. I’m talking about freedom from paying for stuff. There are other examples of goods and services being free – like broadcast television and free newspapers – but none so pervasive. And it’s a disaster.

The fundamental assumption of the consumer internet is that everything should be free. This belief has its roots in the origins of the internet as the bastard child of defence research and academic tinkering, but its all-consuming ubiquity comes from the more recent combination of desperate advertisers and frantic venture capitalists.

We have academics to blame for spam. If SMTP, the underlying protocol at the heart of email, had been designed with any kind of pricing mechanism, we wouldn’t be inundated with ads for penis enlargement, offers of wealth from Nigerian princes and all the rest of the terrible deluge.

Email is free, so we pay for it. Directly for anti-virus and anti-spam products and services; indirectly through lost productivity when viruses and malware get through, or legitimate mail doesn’t.

Consider the latest phishing scandal: it appears that scammers have been obtaining valid SSL certificates for their fake domains. We train users to “look for the padlock” to verify that the site they’ve been sent to is secure. Issuing an SSL certificate ought to be (and used to be) quite time consuming and resource intensive, because the trust authority – the people doing the issuing – are supposed actively to verify the applicant’s identity and entitlement to the domain. But because we think everything should be free – or at least very cheap – we’ve driven the cost down to the point where these checks are cursory at best; in the case of free certificates, they’re almost non-existent.

Indirectly, we pay for free SSL by devaluing the whole basis of secure internet communication. We also pay through our pension schemes, since it’s their money invested by VCs in the companies offering the free services. They’ll want their money back at some point, so either these services will stop being free, or we’ll be subjected to yet more advertising.

We want free wi-fi wherever we go; because continuous access to Facebook is self-evidently a social good. Of course someone has to pay for the infrastructure and the connectivity; if it’s a small café trying to make money out of hipsters using it in place of a paid-for office desk, how much do you think they’ll be able to invest in making their wi-fi service secure?

So we pay for free wi-fi by accepting increased security risks – and more expensive coffee.

The short term answer is only to be aware of the issues and put the right controls in place to protect yourself. Long-term? In my view, we need functioning micropayments now more than ever. As consumers we have to be customers, not product, and to do that we need some way of efficiently paying very small amounts very frequently for the services we use. Every commercial micropayment service to date has been a failure, but blockchain technology (the guts of Bitcoin and the other crypto-currencies) could change that.

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