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The true price of "Free"

Almost no platform online runs without costs, so if the service is free then you are the product.

Tomás Jacob
Sep 28 • 6 min reading
The true price of
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Even though I am Softway’s youngest developer I was lucky to live some years before the Internet was omnipresent. I remember clearly the modems in my house and asking my family to not use the phone while I used the computer. Naturally, my use for the internet back then was to play games and little else. I recall looking amazed at the hundreds of the free games right there in front of me, usually in websites that did not inspire that much confidence in retrospect.

The truth is I was one of the lucky ones. At my home, we had the financial possibility to have an Internet connection. This was perhaps the biggest challenge to enter a world of information and entertainment. As users had to make this meaningful effort to access the internet everything else beyond this entrance was free. Gratuity became of the main pillars of the platform and websites that grew in popularity. Even though the access is now more affordable, this paradigm did not change: most websites we visit regularly do not require a fee to access.

Sadly the internet is not a series of tubes operated by magic. This global network is supported by thousands of equipment spread around the world, from datacenters to the “polemic” 5G antennas. Like everything else in life, these infrastructures have associated expenses. Each website we visit is supported by a server paid for by its owner, it is in itself an invest meant to attract customers or make information accessible. Analogously to the way a highway works, as traffic to a webpage increases so do the server maintenance costs rise. Services like Youtube, Facebook or Google use an incredible amount of resources, becoming like a data highway but with an also incredible high electrical bill.

So if we do not pay to access these services who foots the bill? The answer is simples: ads. Just like a TV show with a large audience, a website with high traffic volume is attractive to potential sponsors looking to advertise their product or company. The main difference here is the audience demographics. Take for example a football match broadcast on a TV channel. We can predict the audience will be mostly males, but it is not so easy to guess which team they are supporting. Through multiple techniques, a website can gather information about the user visiting and display a highly customized ad, more valuable to advertisers. This information is then shared, or in some instances sold, across services and websites. Platforms then use this information to sell more expensive ad space to cover server costs or even turn a profit. In our article from last week, my colleague Inês described this topic with some rather practical examples.

To make an easier demonstration, let's imagine you are looking for a new fridge so you search for “fridges on sale” on Google. From now on, Google knows you are on the lookout for a new fridge, otherwise why would you search for it? Knowing the country you are based on it connects stores with fridges for sale with the intent of displaying ads for it. If you finish your browsing without making any purchase then the system knows you are still interested in it. This way when you browse a different website, even if not about appliances, it will display ads for fridges. This is a very simple and straightforward example of automated ad systems work on the Internet. For many, user information is already considered the new oil

Almost no platform online runs without costs, so if the service is free then you are the product. The possibility to display highly relevant ads for each user has a huge potential, and inherently, is valuable. 

If you are alarmed by this article so far, do not worry. It is normal. This is the current reality. So what can we do escape or avoid this constant cyber-stalking? Well, shutting down the Internet would be an effective way, but then we would not have any way to watch cute cat videos, so let's discuss some alternatives.

A possible first step would be to close our eyes. But not literally. For instance, if we come across a bus station, with a large ad plastered on it, we can look away or close our eyes and ignore it. So why not do the same online? There is a growing number of ad-blocking software available online. When we enter a website, these programs remove the ads from our sight and block other scripts designed to track your browsing habits. Personally, I can recommend uBlock Origin, a well-reviewed opensource browser extension that blocks ads. Similarly, you can use the Firefox browser. Developed by a non-profit organization it does not sell your user information and does not track your habits.

After this first step, we need to start thinking in a more global and less individualistic way. The European Union is waking up to the problems related with the digital privacy of its citizens, with multiple legislation proposals to reinforce consumer rights. Although its implementation and oversight can, and should, be discussed, the General Data Protection Regulation is a step in the right direction. As a citizen, you can be more involved and aware of such initiatives through non-profit organizations such as D3 Association or the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

One final step might be using and supporting platforms adopting alternative business models. By paying for an online service you are supporting the platform directly, reducing the need to sell ad space or user information. A familiar example of this is Netflix. By paying monthly for the service being provided you are not exposed to traditional ads, even though some tracking is made in the platform.

The best possible example of these alternative revenue formats is Wikipedia. It is currently of the largest websites in the world and it does not display any ads! How? With donations. Their huge system relies on contributions from individuals and companies, safeguarding the independence and quality of the information. In case this article inspired you to help, you can make a one time or recurring donation to the Wikimedia Foundation that runs the platform.

While it might not seem the best place in the world right now, the internet is still an incredibly powerful tool available to all. Tracking and ads are not going away anytime soon, nor are they necessarily a problem. It is up to us as consumer and citizens to take a stand for our rights to privacy by supporting platforms and services that help to create a more fair, free and safe internet for all.

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