The Free Internet Really Isn’t Free

Alexis Madrigal recently argued that if you don’t pay for software, such as Instagram, then they will ‘take your stuff’ in order to make money. While Instagram took your stuff rather clumsily by changing the terms of use to allow that company to use your stored photos for whatever purposes it wants, there’s also the more general data mining a la Google (and Instagram).

But there’s another cost to ‘free’ internet too. If you’re a ‘power user’–that is, you keep a bunch of windows open–you’ve probably had episodes where your browser has started to crawl, you get the pinwheel of doom, or the browser has frozen up completely. Usually, that’s due to some sidebar content, often ads, that causes things to crawl. While we think of those as ‘free’, they’re not. Another source is the constantly refreshing web page (which usually has a whole bunch of video stuck in too). Individually, they don’t take up a lot of memory, but across multiple pages, you’re starting to use some real bandwidth.

Recently, while I was away, I measured how much bandwidth simple browsing would use, as I was using Wifi and would have to pay overage charges if I exceeded a certain amount. I wasn’t doing anything intensive–not uploading videos or photos. I figured that, if I had to pay for bandwidth on a regular basis, that my usual habits would have blown through a 5GB allowance in about ten days. Again, all I was doing was browsing websites similar to those often found in my links roundup (I did some experiments, and you would be surprised how much crap some sites load; it’s ridiculous).

So all the supposedly ‘costless’ stuff–the banner and sidebar ads, the page refreshing–actually has a monetary cost if you have to pay for bandwidth. Even if you as a customer don’t have to pay, someone is, and that cost is being passed on to you (in Boston, I use and when a node is overused, there is throttling).

So free really isn’t free.

An aside: I realize some ‘free’ hosts such as WordPress require you to pay a fee if you want to remove ads, so that’s going to happen. But a lot of people put all sorts of bandwidth-hogging crap on their sidebars. Not only does it slow down your page and look ugly, but do you really need to put your twitter feed on your blog? Form should follow function.

Related: I wrote this a couple of weeks ago. Since then, Felix Salmon wrote this about website ads:

I am a big fan of Sullivan’s decision not to accept advertising. Once upon a time, selling ads on blogs made sense — but now it doesn’t. They can turn a blog into an unreadable mess if you’re not very careful, and the amount of cash they generate is rapidly diminishing. They do horrible things to pageload times, they annoy readers, and — most importantly — they would turn Sullivan from being a blogger into being a publisher.

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