The internet is not free, never has been and probably never will be

It’s 2023, which means we’ve been using the internet for 40 years. That’s enough time for anyone to understand that the Internet is not free. It never was and probably never will be. I’m not talking about the monthly fee you pay to your internet service providers, including your mobile operator. I’m talking about effective access to anything you want to do online, whether it’s work or entertainment. Read the news or shop.

Many websites are available for free. That is, you don’t even need an account to use them, and they don’t cost any money. But you still pay for that kind of free access with your personal information.

Whether it’s a one-time fee, a subscription, product sales or ads based on your personal information, there’s always a fee you need to pay. However, whenever something drastic happens, it occurs to me that some people still haven’t figured out that nothing is free, including the Internet.

We have recently witnessed several headline-grabbing events that are related to internet businesses that cost money to operate and seek to profit from their online business.

I have addressed and explained some of them in the past as the internet is probably the most important product in our lives. Imagine going even one day without using your phone to go online to find answers to your questions, talk to your friends and family, or just watch YouTube.

YouTube’s trial ban for ad blocking

It is precisely YouTube that made me think that some Internet users have not realized that they have to pay for access. Specifically, Google has decided to limit access to videos to three clips for those users who use ad blockers. It’s still an experiment, but I think Google is doing the right thing.

Google is spending money hosting those YouTube clips. Data center and all the infrastructure necessary to securely store these clips and protect user data. I’m talking about both the users who view the clips and the creators. Also, YouTube pays creators who make popular videos.

There’s also the software that Google develops and makes free. It’s not just the website where you play the video. It’s much more complicated than that. And it’s not free for Google.

Google offers YouTube as a premium membership or for free. Free YouTube requires ads. That revenue goes back to Google and the YouTube creators you follow.

Message from YouTube indicating to a user that the video will be blocked from playing due to the use of the ad blocker.
Message from YouTube indicating to a user that the video will be blocked from playing due to the use of the ad blocker. Image source: Reddit

Predictably, I received feedback that was contrary to my opinion. That’s fine. It’s your right to be wrong when you pay for YouTube access by watching ads. And one reader said that the internet is there for free to access and paywalls or ads shouldn’t exist. I say to that person and anyone who expects to find free stuff in life, “good luck!”

It’s not just YouTube. Many examples show that the Internet is not free. But I will say that Google is to blame for our loathing of ads. And Facebook shares some of the blame. It really is the bad ad quality of the past that has led many of us to block ads. And the privacy infringing practices of some of the companies that follow us online every day.

Netflix’s password sharing ban

Netflix was initially happy to let you share passwords with anyone you wanted. But now that revenue growth has stalled, the company realizes it can squeeze more money out of users who don’t pay for access. Instead, they’re using the logins of family and friends.

Black Mirror on Netflix
Black Mirror on Netflix Image source: Netflix

You can be mad at Netflix for dropping the ball on content quality. Or for canceling the shows you were following. And nobody likes price hikes.

But you can’t expect to watch Netflix for free. Like Google, Netflix has charges for the delivery of those movies and TV shows that many subscribers enjoy. As long as these bring value to your daily life, you will pay for access.

I foresee similar policies from Netflix’s biggest rivals in the future.

The Reddit Rebellion

Reddit has gone from one of the best places on the “free” internet to one of the worst. It all started a few weeks ago, when major subreddits went dark in response to Reddit leadership’s decision to charge third parties huge fees for access. This killed the popular Reddit Apollo client, a mobile app that many users liked more than Reddit’s default one.

Reddit blamed its API fee change in part on generative AI products like ChatGPT deleting content from Reddit. Ironically, OpenAI offers free access to ChatGPT despite violating a user’s privacy and copyright to train their chatbot.

Apollo for Reddit
Apollo for Reddit Image Source: Apollo for Reddit

The Twitter login mess

Twitter is another free Internet service that you pay for. You watch ads as you scroll or get that fake verification badge for a monthly subscription.

This past weekend, Twitter delivered an incredibly disrupted experience, limiting access to a fixed number of tweets.

It can very well be argued that Elon Musk brought down Twitter. And Musk has been trying to get you to pay for more access during the crisis. Because the internet is not free and some will try to profit from it.

In Musk’s case, his Twitter doesn’t make much money. And it seems like a matter of time before the service is finished. Hopefully Meta’s Threads won’t replace it. But whatever ends up being the new Twitter, we’re going to have to pay for it. Again, this is advertising or a subscription of some kind. Or a combination.

Like Reddit, Twitter complained that a ChatGPT-like bot was scraping its content. And they would both be right.

Facebook is still the worst

I already mentioned Facebook when talking about ad quality. Now called Meta, the company is still the worst provider of free Internet software. Meta is tracking everything you do while you’re in its apps, and your app list may grow. Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and future Threads are some of them.

But, as long as they add value to your Internet experience, you must agree to be tracked. You can limit tracking on iPhones and Apple devices, but you still need to manage ads. It’s part of the “free” Internet experience.

The ChatGPT showdown

The arrival of ChatGPT and similar generative AI services has driven us crazy. This kind of artificial intelligence changes everything about web usage. But services like ChatGPT, Bing Chat, Google Bard, and any future generative AI products will need to leverage data to get smart.

The way OpenAI did it, but ignored privacy and copyright, is why we’ve been having trouble with Reddit and Twitter lately.

OpenAI's official ChatGPT app is now available on iOS.
OpenAI’s official ChatGPT app is now available on iOS. Image source: OpenAI

OpenAI has conveniently forgotten that the Internet is not free. But it spent hundreds of millions training ChatGPT and then offering it as a free internet service.

You have to pay for ChatGPT if you use it extensively through third-party apps, and there’s a Plus subscription for access to the latest features and an Internet connection.

OpenAI is not alone. Google is also busy training its generative AI products. And that might mean bypassing some privacy and copyright rules in the process. I’m just speculating here, of course. Google has gotten better at taking care of user privacy. But Google Bard is not available in the European Union due to the region’s strict privacy rules. That’s pretty eloquent.

The bottom line

As a consumer, it is up to you to decide which parts of the Internet you use. Choose which social media apps to join and which streaming services to subscribe to.

You can also stop using YouTube, Netflix, Facebook and any other internet service or app whenever you want. Again, it’s your decision.

But remember that you have to pay for any internet usage choices. For as long as you use those apps and services. Whether you watch ads, pay for subscriptions, or buy products, you still pay for your internet share. And that won’t change in the foreseeable future.

#internet #free
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