September 22, 2017

The True Cost of Free Internet Services | Next Big Thing

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Free internetIn The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (Putnam), the 1966 Hugo Award-winning science fiction masterpiece by Robert A. Heinlein, the economy of the moon colonies runs under a single key idea: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” The statement refers to the historic practice of bars offering “free lunch” to patrons. The meal, however, consisted of salty foods, which encouraged more drinking. The Internet may seem like a free lunch. But it isn’t.

At a recent Google Camp, I was surprised when a speaker said that she never pays for services online and wouldn’t recommend it. I thought, really? I guess she doesn’t mind those pop-up ads, and what about your data that’s mined and sold by the company providing the “free” product? Often, annoying ads and exposure of personal data are the price one pays for free services.

I’m all for paying a fair price for a fair deal. I want companies that provide quality services to be successful and am willing to pay for the value they provide.

EasyBib, for example, is a pretty slick tool for creating citations. This service, and similar products like NoodleTools, guide students through the full writing process, from source selection to final paper. You can use the free version of EasyBib and other products—if you love ads. Nothing against free stuff; companies have to make money from no-fee tools. But there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Free versions cost companies in server time and bandwidth fees. If I find enough value in a product to keep coming back to it, I’d rather pay the monthly or annual fee to have an enhanced, ad-free experience. School prices are reasonable for both NoodleTools and EasyBib, and most districts in my region happily use these tools.

All-or-nothing policies

There’s a trend toward an all-or-nothing policy in regard to service and content fees. PBS has “free,” ad-supported streaming of NOVA episodes. But it is extremely difficult for schools to purchase rights to the show for ad-free streaming, outside of a massive subscription package. Scholastic has terminated Storia as an ebook selection platform and gone to a subscription deal. Pay for everything, or get nothing.

I like the idea of subscription music services like Spotify, for which I pay for full access, even though I don’t listen to every genre. In cash-strapped schools, however, I can’t reconcile paying for an enormous subscription package with content we’ll never use. Our job as librarians is to curate the best content amid a flood of titles.

Consumers and providers have to come to a happy medium. Consumers can’t expect a free lunch on the Internet, and content providers must continue to sell individual titles rather than whole-package subscriptions. Unless we want to continue to pretend that telling kids to ignore the ads plastered on the “free” service is a form of media literacy instruction, librarians must be willing and able to pay for the things that enrich teaching and learning.

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Christopher Harris About Christopher Harris

Christopher Harris (infomancy@gmail.com) is coordinator of the school library system of the Genesee Valley (NY) Educational Partnership.

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