Commentary

No More Free Lunch

Every couple of months or so I get an email.

It is from some incredibly irate person calling me every name in the book claiming that my “software program” had somehow been placed clandestinely on his computer and is now tracking his every move. How dare I create such a program! How dare I install it on his computer without asking his permission!! How dare I target ADVERTISING AT HIM!!!

These letters go on for pages and pages.

The raving lunatic emailing me has just downloaded some peer-to-peer software program, has not paid attention to what else he was installing, and now has one of the many “targeted ad programs” that are delivered through those types of programs. As soon as he discovered some little software program is now looking over his shoulder, he got irate, looked up the software product in Google, and - voila! - my site poped up since we report on these types of software products and have lots of press releases and articles floating around the site about them.

The interesting part is that he took the time to write me such long-winded vitriol without looking around my site to see if he had his culprit.

Now, anyone who knows me understands I always speak my mind (which has gotten me into no end of trouble as the editors of this and other publications will testify). So this is how I usually respond to these types of message:

“Dear Moran, the free lunch is over.

“Despite having told me that you always examine every piece of software you download, the fact that you are writing me shows that you really didn’t pay too much attention when you downloaded that copy of Bearshare or AudioGalaxy or whatever. That is how the ad tracking software you have on your machine is distributed. You have to give some sort of consent before it downloads: even if that means you have to uncheck some boxes to opt-out.

“So, let’s take a look at your complicity in all of this. You are downloading a program whose only function is to provide you with (possibly illegally) free music: music that someone else paid to produce and promote; music that someone created to pay their rent and send their kids to college. But which you take and pay nothing.

“Did you ever ask yourself who created the software program that you are downloading that makes it possible to receive all this free music? Have you wondered how those programmers pay their rent?

“And the sites you visit to learn about these programs, to check on your stock options, to play games; the sites you visit to read the latest news, follow the latest gossip, or get directions to your next appointment; the sites you visit to check the weather, follow your hobbies, learn about the latest gadget: how do you think these things get paid for? Advertising, my friend. And unless advertisers can reach you in a more efficient and targeted way; unless they can figure out a way to use the Internet to get back some of that money you have saved by not buying CDs, well, they might as well be advertising on TV.

“And if that happens, everything goes away: your news site, your gossip site, your hobby site, your financial site, your business site. GONE!

“Now, I’m a as big a fan of privacy as the next guy. But the program you are complaining to me about doesn’t even know who you are. To this program, you are a GUID: a general and anonymous ID number that knows that when you spend your time at auto sites, maybe it’s a good time to deliver a car ad. But it doesn’t know your name or your address. There is no conspiracy. It is just a way of making it more efficient to deliver advertising to you. A way of attracting those advertising dollars to help pay for all that free music you are currently burning onto blank CDs.

“You see, advertising is the blood supply that makes the Internet go. If you’re like me, you’ve already lost a favorite site due to lack of blood. In fact, the whole Internet is anemic.

“No, there is no more free lunch. You can’t have it both ways. Somebody has to pay for it all. And let’s all hope advertisers keep picking up the tab.

“Have a nice day. Bill”

-- Bill McCloskey is Founder and CEO of Emerging Interest, an organization dedicated to educating the Internet advertising and marketing industry about rich media and other emerging technologies.