The Problem With Free Web-based Services

I have been observing for quite a while the proliferation of free web-based services.  The growth of these free services has caused me a great deal of concern.  What’s wrong with me?  Shouldn’t everyone love free?

Someone I follow on Twitter recently tweeted about wanting a free web-based service to provide access to historical Twitter data.  He and another individual then had a short dialogue about how the unavailability of that data was a problem with the service.  Seriously?  Twitter recently announced they are processing 250 million tweets a day and now also support photo uploads.  Do YOU want to finance a free service to make petabytes of data available?  I can’t help but wonder if this lack of critical thinking is symptomatic of much larger problems in our society.

I have been a big open source software user since the mid 1990’s.  At first glance, the expansion into free Software-as-a-Service offerings seems like a completely natural progression of the open source movement.  But it’s not.  Open source software is generally hobbyists or corporate-paid programmers working on something which is important to their business but not critical to their core intellectual property.  They “throw the software over the fence” and hopes someone else gets good use out of it.  Free web-based services are backed by hugely-expensive infrastructures from which consumers seem to expect 100% uptime.  Many of these companies are hugely in debt or owe favors to many stakeholders because they are not grown organically, but rather are funded by venture capital and business loans.

I’ve heard a saying something to the effect of “if you look around the room and can’t find the dumbest person, it’s probably you.” Well, if you look at a free web-based service and can’t find the revenue-generating cash cow, it’s probably you.  Your personal data and identity are the product.  Facebook is trying to build a social graph of the entire universe.  Are they doing that to make it easier to connect with your long-lost friends?  Ha.  They are doing it because the data they are able to gather is a dream stockpile for advertisers, marketing research firms, and governments intent on observing and controlling their populaces.

Google has made some amazing investments and innovations in the tech world, but ultimately they are a signboard available to the highest bidder.  Their contribution to the world, including their investments in alternative energy, are only made possible because of massive advertising revenue.  They can afford to have armies of unproductive people delving into new areas and even entire product lines that will later be canceled.

But if one is happy with the quality and availability of a free service, they just just use it, right?  There are certainly a few I use.  However, you definitely have to go in with open eyes.  If you value privacy, the amount of data you make available in even the simplest uses of these sites probably makes you uncomfortable.  On some, even the registration process can be quite uncomfortable.  Remember, if you are giving your name, date of birth, and hometown to someone to whom you are paying no money, you have an unequal financial relationship with someone who can probably mine your social security number and everything that entails.

What are some of the decision points for whether you should use a free service?  For me, I think about whether the terms of service are mutually acceptable, not just beneficial to the party offering the service.  I think about whether data I spend hours populating can easily be retrieved at any time for backup purposes should the company that owes me nothing decide to close its doors.  I think about whether there is some bigger-picture revenue model that doesn’t require my data being sold like a commodity.  I think about whether the service is something that is available in a similar paid form elsewhere with a company with more incentive to be concerned about my interests.

These decisions are individual, but they are very important.  For me, there are a number of things I have decided to pay for and a number of free services I have continued to use.  I pay for web hosting, domain names, online backup, Android applications, operating system upgrades.  I am still a very reluctant social networks user, at least on the publishing-personal-information front.  I do find them a great place to learn new things and find interesting new links.

Like everything else in the real world, there are a lot of gray areas, but there are without a doubt free web-based services that you should avoid like the plague.  Many others you just need to be very, very careful how you use.  Keep your eyes open and keep asking yourself “what’s the product?”

P.S.  This blog is one of the free services out there.  I spend about $60 a year on hosting it and the domain name.  So far, I have made less than $4 on my ads.  I am considering removing them to be less of a hypocrite, but we’ll see 🙂