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Free, but at what cost ?

Posted on Thu 08 November 2018 in Mon avis sur tout (et surtout mon avis)

Free Beer


Internet is a world apart, where almost all of us have taken strange habits. One of them in particular has raised into a principle that few will question : free-of-charge access to anything. Being able to access any resource we want without paying a single cent has become so natural that one almost forgets what implications it has.

I will not spend much time beating a dead horse with another variation of the argument that is usually spit out regarding this topic : "If you're not paying, you are the product". While it's extremely important to wonder why Google "offers" us a mailbox that other service providers make us pay at least 1€/month, or why Google or Facebook let us store gigabytes of pictures or videos free of charge, my focus will not be on free (as in free beer) services. Anyone is free (as in free speech) to consciously save a few euros per month at the expense of their privacy or their freedom, after all.

I would rather address the widespread expectation of free access to content, which is obviously related to the previous topic, for there would be no reason to use those free service if they did not provide free content. But it raises a different concern, which is that of the retribution of the content producer. A cumulative profit of 30 billion dollars in 2016 is some rather strong evidence that Google and Facebook live perfectly well in spite of not requiring a single cent from us ; but it is much harder to explain how one could require having content that is both of quality AND free of charge.

For that demand seems rather inconsistent once transposed in "real life" : does one expect high quality articles in free newspapers ? Does one expect a free private TV channel to produce content whose primary goal would be quality instead of popularity ? Would one prefer to watch - free of charge - a movie cut by several ad breaks than to rent it or watch it in a cinema ? Wasn't one used to pay for access to encyclopedic knowledge ? Did one expect a complete stranger to offer us some of his own time to spread his knowledge, or provide us with joy or emotions without any counterpart (be it money or a plain old human exchange) ?

Yet this demand can be rather well explained in economic terms, even when considering things beyond the trivial observation that there is - apparently - nothing to lose when you acquire a good free of charge. For a long time, access to content had been made by restricted airing (on the radio or the TV) or physical access (at the cinema or a concert venue), or by getting a copy of it (a copy of such book, a VHS tape, a vinyl record, a feature article published in such newspapers), but Internet has shattered that old model of diffusion ... for it allows infinite multiplication of copies of content. Therefore it seems completely vain to try and restrict access to content, and value is produced through other means : e.g. accessibility (being able to access one's content from anywhere without caring about its storage, like Dropbox, Google Drive, Netflix, Spotify, ...) or simply the ability to select quality content among a never-ending stream of production.

But that demand, while duly justified, leaves behind the question of the content producer's retribution ... which is not much of a problem if their motivation is such that the very idea of making consumers pay is secondary or even hurtful : e.g. if it's a public institution whose mission is producing content that would be accessible to everyone. Or if it's an activist association, or a company's public relations department, whose main goal is spreading a message, or ideas. One can also imagine some non-legal but seemingly moral deals when it's a 'mainstream' actor that can somehow be paid in "real life" (e.g. "I download that artist's records for free but I pay to see him/her in concert every time he/she comes in my town so that's OK").

But the web is filled with tutorials, opinion pieces, background analysis, courses, popular scientific information features, original entertaining content ... that are written or directed by Internet users for whom it is not the main activity, and rightfully so. Even those whose success has allowed them to make it their main activity remain in incertainty towards the platform they have "chosen", e.g. Youtubers who see their content targeted by "claims".

Such content that Internet allow us to enjoy appear in countless formats and their topics are infinitely various, but the overwhelming share of those productions share a common characteristic : their consumers enjoy them free of charge, and they do not see why it should be otherwise. And yet ... Some amateur content producers are able to affect dozens of thousands (or even more) of their fellows on a regular basis, spreading their knowledge, inviting them to think, or just entertaining them. Even if their viewership is less that that, is it not the kind of genuine value-creating activity that it would be fair and desirable to promote and support, and therefore ... to remunerate (at the very least to allow it to continue) ? Would it not be a gain for society as a whole if those amateurs were allowed to fully focus on what they patently do so well, or even to turn it into a full-time job ? Would it not be worth changing our habits in order to help them towards that goal ?


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