There's no free lunch
by Alan Zisman
(c) 2000. First
published in Vancouver Computes,
We all know that free is the best price, right? Well,
we may have to
start to rethink that. As any reader of Robert Heinlein?s sci-fi
?The Moon is a Harsh Mistress? knows, there ain?t no such thing as a
Because in a society like ours where money makes the
world go ?round,
most things that seem to be free are only that way because someone?s
paid in less obvious ways.
Take TV. It?s free because someone is willing to pay
for access to your
eyeballs. And that advertiser-pay environment changes what gets shown
both obvious and subtle ways. (Or take this free publication, where the
same economic model applies).
The Internet is another area where free isn?t always
all that it appears
We?ve all seen the banner ads that festoon many web
sites. That TV-like
model isn?t working well?the bulk of the advertising revenue goes to a
tiny handful of popular sites. And there?s a small and declining rate
click-through?people actually clicking on the ad. Finally, more and
software (like Naviscope or Webwasker) is making it easy for users to
turn off the ads. A lot of web advertisers are wondering whether
getting their money?s worth.
Certainly, hardly any one (besides some porn sites,
anyway) has been
able to succeed charging for information on the Net. The New York Times
and Encyclopedia Britannica have tried online subscription services,
backed off?moving to some variety of free service.
But connect up to Encylopedia Britannica
you?re asked for e-mail and other information?and promised that $1 will
be donated to the charity of your choice. You can close that screen (or
lie to it) and still get on?and yes, the entire, fabled contents of the
encyclopedia is available. Beside your article is a list of books that
promise to provide more information. Click on one, and you?re taken to
Barnes & Noble?s online bookstore?if you order, Britannica gets a
Then there?s all that free software. In some cases, it
of something a programmer wrote for her or his own enjoyment, freely
to the world at large. But there are other motivations. Microsoft
its free browser Internet Explorer to ensure that other web browsers
develop in a way that would challenge their hold on the operating
Other products are distributed free to home and
education users in order
to build demand for the corporate (payware) version.
And still others are free because in using them,
you?re providing ongoing
information that is then being sold?the AirMiles model. (What! You
that you collected AirMiles because companies liked you?)
For example, there?s the company formerly known as
Aureate, now known
as Radiate. They produce a set of files that are installed as part of a
large list of ?free? applications that post ads that appear as part of
their applications. At the same time, it?s transmitting in the
from your computer?in the words of security expert Steve Gibson,
and ?phoning home? about the user?s use of Aureate's ad-enabled
Gibson and others have referred to this as ?spyware?,
it could be sending other personal information without the user?s
or approval. Gibson is careful to point out that while the capability
there, there is no evidence that, in fact, this is happening?despite
in some online sources.
However, most of the applications using the
Aureate/Radiate adware did
so without informing the user that this software was being installed.
software operates secretly, running even when its host program is not
In fact, the adware remains on users? systems and continues to operate
even after the host application is uninstalled?Aureate?s software
itself into the browser so that it runs whenever the user is surfing
Net?downloading ads and sending demographic information.
Gibson lists 279 programs that use the Aureate system
Internet freebies like Cute-FTP and Go-Zilla but even including free
and solitaire programs.
And in case none of this bothers you, it seems that
the Aureate software
often results in making your web browser unstable. Been experiencing
with Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator? Check for the existence
Adware.dll in your \Windows\System folder. If it?s there, then you got
The easiest way to remove the Aureate stuff is to use
free OptOut utility (http://grc.com/optout.htm)-- but note that this
break the freeware that installed it in the first place.
Free certainly sounds like the right price?but as the
and Internet sites struggle to figure out how to make free pay, make
you know what the real price is for the so-called free lunch.