Friday, November 8, 2013

How much does free cost?

Free is the norm on the net. You expect to access just about everything for free and if someone tries to put up a paywall around their content most of us simply don't visit that site any more. At the same time we are acutely aware of the bombardment of advertising that accompanies most websites and some are so full it's hard to actually read the content. There's a lot of quality content out there that costs time money and professional expertise to produce and neither of the present models (free with ads or paywall) work very well. I'd be happy to pay for quality content if there was a flexible and painless way to do so. I'm not interested in paying a subscription to a newspaper when I only read a handful of its articles each month but I recognize that good journalism costs money.

A BBC article, Are the days of free content on the net numbered? questions whether the present advertising-driven free content model is sustainable. Signs are that revenues are falling and that news sites in particular will be unable to continue unless they can find a new revenue model. The answer would seem to be some kind of micropayment system where you are charged a tiny sum every time you read an article or watch a film on certain sites. Web content produced by individuals without commercial interest (blogs, wikis, hobby sites, clubs etc) will of course remain free but newspapers, TV sites and so on will get paid per click in a similar system to paying artists whose music is streamed via Spotify. If this means that serious journalism is available without paywalls or irritating advertising then I'm all for it. Otherwise we risk losing such media and our view of the world will be controlled by blatantly commercial media channels.

The article quotes web pioneer Robert Cailliau:

Mr Cailliau thinks that monthly subscriptions are too expensive and restrictive. He says the pay-as-you-go mobile phone model is a great one for online content.
"When you send an SMS, you pay a small amount of money. Each individual action should be billed individually," he says.
"My browser should pay you automatically a cent or two cents per page without me feeling it. I should not have to prepay a large amount of money."
"Why re-invent? The telephone already does that. We already have a worldwide system that's capable of billing the customer for every move he makes."

It isn't easy getting people to pay for something that has been free but maybe the model will be to pay a small flat rate to help pay for quality content but also for the right to avoid drowning in ads. If this helps to pay for serious journalism then it's worth trying.


  1. Good questions. I'd argue that micro-payments are just another form of pop up add, they even function in a similar way (micro payments for click throughs).

    I think I'd rather a more utilities based approach to something that is become a basic utility, like electricity, gas or water delivery. In all those cases we pay for the infrastructure that delivers the product, and the product itself. When we're charged by an ISP we are charged for access to the net (some infrastructure), but the data side is pretty simplistically assessed (only by volume). What if your ISP charged us all for data both in terms of quality and quantity?

    If everyone who accesses the net were paying for access to all the content on it, it would prevent monopolistic tendencies and everyone, from the New York Times to personal bloggers would be recognized for their contributions.

    Just a thought on a cold, Thursday morning.

  2. Exactly! Fees should be as low profile as possible but still a way of providing income to those who provide content. If that saves quality journalism and content then it's worth paying. Otherwise I fear we may drown in ads, commercial propaganda and trash.