‘This website is free’ and other lies we tell ourselves

25 Nov 2019

Image: © deagreez/Stock.adobe.com

So much of what you can access on the internet is free, but that comes with a cost, writes Elaine Burke.

This website is free,” is a common riff on Twitter used when something particularly delightful (or devilish) happens there for all to see. You get to see a dictionary poke fun at a president, or global brands get salty with one another, or a beloved crisp-maker make a bizarre tribute to a recently deceased TV icon, all just by being online.

Yet, even with all that we get for free, in a recent discussion on paywalls with Liam Geraghty for The Business on RTÉ Radio 1, I joked that, “I’d nearly pay for a bit of peace.” What I meant here is that quantity does not mean quality, and filtering through the mass of content online can feel a bit overwhelming at times. The seemingly endless streams seem to keep us scrolling, but not absorbing, content. I know I’m not the only one to open the Twitter app, find something interesting, then bookmark it so I can continue scrolling, falling deeper into the unsatisfying web that this app has built to keep me engaged only in a passive sense of the word.

I’m of the mind that curation and a promise of quality is worth paying for. Yet the content subscriptions I have are yet to fully free me from the anxiety-inducing scrolling habit I’ve developed. I could possibly pay to alleviate that, too.

I could probably pay to find my tribe online – something that platforms endlessly promise but, with scale, can find is a greater challenge to deliver on. Online groups will often fracture into offshoots after an upswell in users makes it unwieldy to maintain a common thread.

I might pay not to be harassed by increasingly aggressive ads. In fact, I do deploy an ad-blocker on some websites that I believe have sacrificed the user experience for the sake of advertisers, and I donate to the makers of that plugin regularly. And I would certainly pay to never again have to suffer through another autoplay video, whether it’s an advertisement or not.

We could end up paying for privacy online, too. In fact, there already is a premium on privacy when you compare the world’s two top competing mobile operating systems: your choices are Apple’s elitist walled garden or Google’s surveillance capitalism free-for-all. She who pays gets the privacy spoils.

In light of shifting attitudes toward data protection and privacy, people have begun to ask themselves if they’re willing to pay services with fees instead of with their data. Might we one day be able to pay Facebook to avoid targeted disinformation with a political agenda? Because, by now, the true cost of allowing our data to be used for personally tailored propaganda has been made clear.

We don’t just pay with our data, either. We pay with our time, too. That’s a cost few people seem to account for.

And then there’s the human cost of content moderation. Following his recent Richard Dimbleby lecture, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, was asked if social media companies should be hiring more people to moderate and remove harmful content on their platforms.

“Then you have a human being who is paid, probably not very much, to sit all of their working life looking at things that are borderline really horrible and ghastly. It is not so much the pay, it is that it is an awful job to do. They end up being changed as it is more than a person can take to be constantly asked to make these decisions and to see this horrible stuff,” said Berners-Lee. Indeed, is there anything we could pay to make it worthwhile for someone to sift through the horrors of the internet so we don’t have to?

The New York Times recently explored this shift from an unlimited content free-for-all to a paid-for ‘premium’ internet – a piece I read unencumbered as a New York Times subscriber. It recalls a 2012 quote from investor Marc Andreessen on how the spread of computers and the internet will put jobs into two categories: “People who tell computers what to do, and people who are told by computers what to do.”

Andreessen was addressing a shifting workplace dynamic, but this division applies in the world of online content too, and it’s a division marked – like many in modern society – on financial lines. I may be willing to pay for a better internet, but what if I’m not in a position to do so?

I can see a time when those with the funds can funnel out the crap online and create better spaces for themselves, and those without can be glad of all the unfiltered, unmoderated, unregulated and generally unchecked content they get for free.

During his speech, Berners-Lee called on governments and tech giants to commit to the course correction required for a world wide web that benefits humanity. “The web does not have to stay the way it is now. It can be changed, it should be changed, it needs to be changed.”

I want to share the idealism of the web’s inventor, but I can’t help but wonder: at what cost?

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.