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Free lunch: why that free thing is not free

December 8th, 2015


How many times do you see the word ‘Free’ plastered all over the internet?

Whether it’s free phone apps, free ebooks or free training courses, we’re bombarded with this word every day. It’s a marketer’s best friend, and a consumer’s greatest temptation.

But they say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Does that apply here?

What is ‘free’ online?

With so much talk of piracy, music downloads and YouTube take-downs, you’d think that the web was a literal free-for-all. If businesses are going under because no one’s paying for anything any more, surely the ‘customers’ are getting something for nothing?

Free things do not always mean savingsThere are a lot of people who would like you to think so.

But there are big bucks to be made from your ‘free’ browsing, and it could be costing you. So what are you ‘paying’ with when you browse a free website?

Your email address

If you don’t read the rest of this blog post, please at least read this section.

When you type in your email address (perhaps alongside your name) so that you can download a white paper, a guide, or watch a video, or ‘get access’ to a ‘free’ course, take a moment to think about why your email is being asked for.

And ask yourself again later when you voluntarily sit down in front of the massed advertising hoarding that is your inbox.

Now can you see why they want your email address? It’s free entry into your home, into your eyes and into the product-buying centres of your brain. Your course/video/ebook might be free, but it’s a loss-leader so that a company or individual can try to sell you more.

If they’re honest, they will have told you up front that ‘By filling in this form you agree to subscribe to our email newsletter’. That’s right, you’re on the mailing list now!

Of course, I’m not saying that this is a blanket evil. You can sign up in the sidebar of this very site to get all these Guides by email. I’m just suggesting that you go into this with eyes open. If you want Guides by email, and you give me your email, you get Guides. But if a site gives you access to a free download just for putting your email in a box, check there isn’t more to pay.

Sometimes it will be worth it, and sometimes it won’t, but in the end, y being more careful you’ll have a clearer inbox, more time to do more interesting things than check your email, and you’ll be able to enjoy those email newsletters that you really want to read.

Viruses and unwanted software

Will a virus come for free?I don’t want to go on too much about this, because there are too many scare stories about how downloading films and music illegally will infect your computer with viruses and other malware.

The truth is that there are thousands of people willing to stick it to the man by uploading and sharing the things they love and own, and it’s not always for the sake of mischief or malice against the unwary.

However, you do have to look at where you’re getting things from. Even reputable sites like CNet are getting reputations for bundling junk with their downloads. This junk will probably either serve up more ads in your web browser, or will tempt/coerce you into buying something. CNet and their ilk will get a cut of this profit, and so your free download makes a little money on the side.

Adverts and in-app purchases

I’ve already mentioned adverts, but I’m putting it here next to in-app purchases because they’re two elements of the ‘free-to-play’ culture which so brazenly use ‘free’ in a way that most of us wouldn’t recognise.

The nature of the thing is this: you get your ‘free’ app, most often a game. You pay no money. Then you fire up your new acquisition and you notice two things quite quickly: little adverts pop up along the top or bottom of the screen, and you can’t get very far in the game without buying extra lives or new levels once you’ve completed the easy free ones. Maybe the game runs in ‘real time’ unless you pay some money to speed up the slow bits, like when your Sims are sleeping or your villagers are building their houses.

Here, it’s not ‘payment-by-other-means’, but rather delayed payment, or hook-you-in-then-squeeze-you-for-cash payment. It’s a low tactic, though thankfully one that’s not so prevalent since it raised the ire of a great many people.

How to avoid paying when something is free

Free things can turn out to be surprisingly expensiveHopefully now you’re more aware of how you’re paying for something that appears to be free. You should be able to make better decisions about when to give your personal details in exchange for a freebie, and when to hold back. I know it’s all too easy to let temptation get the better of you, and forget that even when you’re not giving them money, companies are profiting from the information, or the later payments, that they’re taking.

To avoid falling into these traps, here are some tips:

  • Assign some large amount of cash value to your email address, say £50. Whenever someone asks for your email address in exchange for some product, ask yourself whether you’d pay £50 for it. Imagine you’re a millionaire. This is £50 that you can afford to throw away, but is the product worth it? Does the product vendor deserve that £50? This is how I go about things, and I sign up to some products, but not others.
  • Follow the Money: this well-worn phrase is a handy tool to help you suss out the dodgy from the merely… clever ploys. Why are you being asked for your personal details? Contact details suggest… yes, contact! Does the vendor want to get in touch? If so, are you explicitly signing up for this kind of thing? If not, are you aware of what you’re signing up for in addition to, for instance, a free download? If there are no personal details being requested, how else is the freebie being funded? If it’s pirated, then you can probably assume it’s being done out of rebelliousness or a desire to share, but if there is a profit-making company or person here, how is this freebie contributing to their bottom line? Will there be adverts? In-app purchases? Be ready for them!
  • Do your future self a favour: here you are at the decision point. You want a free thing, and you have your not-money in your hand. Think about your Future Self, who right now is gazing back at you across the space-time continuum cursing and waving a fist as she / he ploughs through more useless email newsletters. Don’t force Future Self to have to unsubscribe from all this junk!

So there you have it: how to spot a Free Thing from a Loss Leader.

One more thing before you go: I want to mention the crazy world of Open Source or Free Software here. I have great admiration for such software, which is genuinely free, and which I use a lot. It’s given away in the hope that you can contribute something back, also for free. Perhaps this is contribution will be in the form of programming, or instruction manual writing, or even cash donations. It truly is Free, and often respects other Freedoms like privacy. You won’t find someone chasing money here, and if you do, you can be sure that it’s either not a proper Free Software project, or someone else is distributing something that should be Free, and has attached some strings. Your best bet is to download Free Software from its official site. Anyway, that’s just a little aside. Go forth and get free stuff!

Image: Eye of Providence, as seen on a US dollar bill (public domain)

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