The Death of Free

There have been many casualties in this Internet recession, beginning with the market crash earlier this spring, and it only seems to be picking up steam this month.

One of the casualties is the idea of “free.” As in free service, free computers, even free email without obligation.

In the last few months free ISPs have been dropping like houseplants left outside during an early frost. They’re not all gone, but just about all the “free PC” start-ups are. And the folks running free email services, such as Microsoft’s Hotmail, are becoming grumpy like rabid Democrats. You want a customer support line? Fuggedaboutit! You think we’re made of money? Not any more.

The next shoe to drop will likely be government-subsidized free service, or at least government-subsidized unfiltered service. There will be no pornography, hate, or Green Party sites accessible from schools and libraries. If government-subsidized service is your only option, too bad. You’re not good enough to be trusted.

The idea of something for nothing has no value for Americans today. We figure that if we’re paying nothing, then nothing is what it’s worth. We trash our parks, throw up cheap plastic “street spam” at intersections, and treat public schools with the same disdain we give mothers who want free cheese.

So the end of free Internet access might have a bright side. It means we may learn to actually value the resource and demand more from it.

When we start spending our own dollars on Internet access, we’ll especially demand more from our ISPs. Which would be a great benefit to small, local ISPs that do focus on customer service.

Though the idea of free hardware may be dead, the business model of bundling hardware, whether it’s computer hardware or broadband hardware, under a long-term service contract is common in the cellular and cable businesses. That may be where the Internet access business is heading, too.

Other businesses may also benefit as people grow accustomed to paying for access. Internet kiosks and cafis may become a major down-market phenomenon. (Internet cafis are very popular in the developing world, where dial-up service can cost more than the average worker’s salary.)

There could be social benefits as well. Once we’re paying for our access, we’ll start seeing the real costs of spam in our bills, and maybe we’ll demand real action against it. (“I’m paying for this microphone!”) We expect value for money. In fact, we demand it.

Once we get used to paying for access, do you think we might end this nonsense about “free” delivery? The catalog industry has never been shy about tacking on delivery charges, why should Webvan or be any different?

Sure, there will be howling as people learn there’s no such thing as a free lunch — especially because this medium has been feeding free for years. But if the Internet has real value, most people will pay for it, just as most people pay for cable service.

The transition may be difficult in the short term, but making the correlation between value and money explicit should eventually be good for everyone involved in Internet commerce.

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