We Have Reached the End of Free
In the beginning, the web was a free bonanza. Now every site tries to sign you up for a monthly subscription.
There was a time when it seemed like everything was free on the internet.
Free email. Free hosting. Free software. Free cloud storage. Free photo storage. Every social media site was free as was every search engine and every news site. The software that powered the servers running the web was free. If anywhere was the land of the free, it was the internet. Some free things weren’t even free enough. There were degrees of free-ness: “free” as in beer, or “free” as in speech. And we gobbled it all up. “‘Free is a special price,” Bruce Schneier wrote in Data and Goliath, “there has been all sorts of psychological research showing that people don’t act rationally around it.”
We didn’t act rationally.
Some said that if something was free-as-in-speech, they’d be prepared to pay for it. But most of us came for the freebies. The liberty that open-source licenses afforded was an optional extra. How many downloaded Firefox or GIMP and started changing the underlying code? The vast majority were simply pleased there was no price tag. If your digital ambitions were modest, you could do everything you wanted online without spending a penny.
There is, they say, no such thing as a free lunch. But on the internet, there was no such thing as a paid lunch. It was all free lunches, all the time. Every site was a digital all-you-could-eat buffet, and while software may have been eating the world, the world was eating up software as well. With so much available for free, the idea of charging for news or emails or photo storage was untenable. If you charged for your service, it simply wouldn’t be used. A number of now-defunct paid services discovered this the hard way. “You weary giants of flesh and steel,” John Perry Barlow wrote in 1996 in A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, “You are not welcome among us.” It seemed the laws of economics weren’t welcome either.
If your digital ambitions were modest, you could do everything you wanted online without spending a penny.