The Not-So-Free World-Wide Web

There are several underlying assumptions that all too many internet users have. Actually, there are more than several, but I’m going to discuss one aspect that is both tacitly accepted… and erroneous.

That’s the belief that the content on the web largely is and should be “free.” None of it is truly free. It can’t be, by definition. Now some content is obviously and effectively “pay-to-view.” If you want to access certain services, certain libraries, and the like, someone has to pay. I can’t access the scholarly articles on JSTOR, not without subscribing, but my wife can, IF she accesses them from her university computer, because the university has paid for that service for its faculty and staff. Likewise, because I’ve written a number of stories for Jim Baen’s Universe magazine, I can access the stories there, but she can’t, not without my password and ID. Some library systems have also paid for access to otherwise “pay-restricted” content, and if you use their computers, you also can access that material.

But…doesn’t the rest of the web offer a wide range of “free” content?

Not on your life, it doesn’t. First, there are all the ads, pop-up or otherwise. Every time you access a site with such ads or banners, that site is being supported in part or whole by advertising, and you’re paying with either delays or in reading or watching, even if momentarily, that ad content. Even on this site, which has no overt ads, Tor is paying for the site and the technical maintenance, and I’m devoting probably entirely too much time in trying to intrigue and entertain you so that you will read and buy more of my books. Just how long do you think Tor would do that if no one bought my books? Most sites by professional writers, or writers trying to be professionals, are set up and maintained for the purpose of selling the writer and his or her works. They’re “free” only in the sense that the viewer doesn’t have to come up with payment on the spot.

When the Bush Administration asked for Big Brother powers, and Congress granted them under the Patriot Act, at least some Americans rose up and asked why. Some protested the erosion of long-held civil liberties. But it seems like many of those who did so now have surrendered to the commercialized versions of Big Brother. Yes, indeed, give this advertiser or web merchant your sales profile and your tastes. Provide your address here, and your birthday here. Post all your friends and preferences there…

It wasn’t the government that destroyed the American financial system; it was the banking and commercial interests, as well as the average American, all seeking something for nothing, or for far less than it was worth. Do we have to fear that it will be the government that destroys personal privacy and possibly civil liberties? Or will we do it to ourselves for the lure of “free” content, wanting to “join our friends or online communities,” or for apparent ease of communications and shopping?

Free? Think again.