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Shades of free

July 23, 2012

I meant to comment on Fred Wilson’s In Defense of Free last week, but then got busy. Fred was largely reacting to Dalton Caldwell’s post arguing that we should pay for services so that service providers focus on our needs, rather on the needs of advertisers. I’ll preface my comments by saying that I largely agree with Dalton; I’ve lamented before that so many providers are focused on selling me as a product rather than selling me a product. I’d much rather pay for more services so that I know providers are working toward my interests.

In particular, I wanted to comment on this one paragraph:

Let’s start with advertising. I do not believe it is evil. In fact, I believe it is a fantastic way to support services that want the broadest adoption and want to be free. Think about the Super Bowl, the World Cup, the Olympics, the Oscars, the Presidential Debates, the news coverage of important events. These things are ad supported and free for anyone to watch who has a TV and an antenna. It is good for society for these things to be available to the broadest audience.

I agree with Fred that there are services where advertising is acceptable. However, I think Fred is being someone what disingenuous by focusing on TV as his example. Broadcasters sell TV advertising based on the expected audience for content. Specifically, the aggregate audience. As a result, I would argue that the advertising is not particularly intrusive, and I personally don’t have a problem with it.

However, today’s online services are centered around a more intrusive form of advertising: extracting as much personal data from you as possible and then using it to sell access to you as an individual, rather than you as an aggregate class. It’s that focusing on extracting and using personal data that I find objectionable. And because the more data about you a service has the more it can charge for access to you, providers have an incentive to continually push the boundaries to extract more and more data. Too much is never enough.

So I agree, free services aren’t necessarily bad (and the advertising used to support free services aren’t necessarily bad either). But the particular shade of free that seems pervasive on the Internet, trading our privacy for services, does seem bad to me (and others). So I wish Dalton and other like-minded individuals success in creating paid alternatives.

From → Musings

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