Thursday, October 22, 2009

How free is free?

We all assume that everything on the net is free and that somehow advertising pays for all the services we use. As a result we upload tons of content to servers somewhere out there and believe they're safe there. But what happens when the company providing that service has financial problems and decides to charge for the service or, worse still, decides simply to pull out the plug?

There's a critical article on this theme in Times Higher Education by Tara Brabazon, Beware writers bearing promises of a free internet. In particular Chris Anderson's book "Free" comes under fire as it shows the "freemium" movement to be ultimately highly commercial rather than the philanthropic movement it is sometimes presented as.

"His (Anderson's) “free” is corporatised. The cost of free is permanence, reliability and stability. The old cliché is correct. We get what we pay for: when the price is free, then the “service” can be removed without questions or reprisal."

Brabazon used a web service for storing her audio files that suddenly disappeared because the owners decided that the service wasn't being used enough. Since it was "free" they had no obligation to communicate with the users. In addition, the cost of using many free services is the irritation of having sometimes highly inappropriate ads next to your content; especially sensitive if you're using it for teaching.

We trust companies like Google and Ning but if times get tough who knows what may happen. Our information is at their mercy. Terms can be changed at the drop of a hat and it's important we are aware of this and not place unlimited trust in companies that, after all, are there to make money. The free services are, of course, mostly there as bait to get you into the premium services. I admit the irony of writing this on a free blog tool!

The article does however point us in the direction of a genuine non-profit archive for digital material, the Internet Archive. This is a massive library of films, photos, audio, texts and an archive of 150 billion web pages from 1996 to the present day. The archive “is free and open for everyone to use ..... to encourage widespread use of texts in new contexts by people who might not have used them before." This is possibly the real meaning of "free".

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