Free Web Access Comes At A Price

I remember the first account we had with a video rental store. My mom’s boyfriend had bought us a VHS player and paid the initiation fee -- I think it was $300 -- that would allow us to rent movies (for which we also paid). Having the account was an incredible luxury. Not everyone could afford it.

Soon enough, though, the movie rental people figured out there was more money to be made in, well, renting movies than in membership fees. I was pretty young at the time, but I imagine the math went something like this: We can get 50 people to pay a $300 signup fee and rent 10 movies each for $10, or we can get 500 people to pay no signup fee and rent 10 movies each for $10. At some point -- when you can generate more revenue once people are in than you can from charging them to get in -- providing access moves from being the product to being the customer acquisition channel.

Something similar is happening with Web accessibility. Back in the day, charging for access was a key business model -- and for lots of communications companies, it still is. At the same time, our expectations of connectivity continue to skyrocket. We want to be online at our local cafes, in restaurants, in the subway. As it turns out, like the movie rentals, companies benefit financially from getting people online. These companies can sit back and wait for you to pay your $300, or they can make more money by getting more people to rent more movies.



Hence the enlightened self-interest of initiatives like Google’s Project Loon, balloon-powered Internet for everyone, which launched (pardon the pun) last year in Christchurch, New Zealand (where I live). Hence last week’s announcement of Facebook’s; TechCrunch’s Josh Constine reports that the app is offering “free data access [in Zambia] to a limited set of services including Facebook, Messenger, Wikipedia, and Google Search.”

Facebook’s partner in the endeavour, Airtel, is reasonably explicit about its motivations for supporting the access. Constine observes that the company, like AOL in the ‘90s, is providing “the free access in hopes that Zambians see the web’s value and buy pre-paid data through the app to explore the rest of the Internet.” This, he indicates, can lead to cynicism: “The initiative to get more people on the Internet is sometimes criticized as a Facebook growth tactic masquerading as altruism….’s app will in fact grow Facebook by making usage free in Zambia.”

Facebook has an answer to the accusation, obviously. “ product manager Guy Rosen defends the project’s benevolent side by reiterating Mark Zuckerberg’s white papers, telling me that Internet access can have a profound positive impact on the carrier opportunities and education for people in the developing world,” writes Constine.

But the issue isn’t merely one of giving neophyte Web users in the developing world free trials or samples in hopes of converting them to paying customers. While the benefits for users can be profound and transformative, we should also be attentive to a scenario in which these organizations -- which trade in data and have already provoked a range of concerns about their stewardship thereof -- control an even greater swath of our online activity. If Google or Facebook directly provide Internet access to a billion or two new customers, it seems reasonably safe to assume most of that traffic will be monitored or able to be monitored. Do the Zambians know this is what they’re signing up for? Is Edward Snowden a household name in Zambia?

These games are tradeoffs. Give me a free video account, make more money off me renting movies. Give me free access to the Web, make more money off my data, my purchases, or both. We’re not always aware of the collective price we pay. But, without a doubt, the best time to become aware is before we’ve actually paid it.

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