There's no free lunch

by Alan Zisman (c) 2000. First published in Vancouver Computes, May 2000

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 classic ?The Moon is a Harsh Mistress? knows, there ain?t no such thing as a free lunch. Tanstaafl.

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 getting 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 in 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 to be.

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 of click-through?people actually clicking on the ad. Finally, more and more software (like Naviscope or Webwasker) is making it easy for users to simply turn off the ads. A lot of web advertisers are wondering whether they?re 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, and backed off?moving to some variety of free service.

But connect up to Encylopedia Britannica ( First 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 commission. Clever!

Then there?s all that free software. In some cases, it truly consists of something a programmer wrote for her or his own enjoyment, freely released to the world at large. But there are other motivations. Microsoft produced its free browser Internet Explorer to ensure that other web browsers didn?t develop in a way that would challenge their hold on the operating system market.

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 thought 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 background, from your computer?in the words of security expert Steve Gibson, ?recording and ?phoning home? about the user?s use of Aureate's ad-enabled applications?.

Gibson and others have referred to this as ?spyware?, suggesting that it could be sending other personal information without the user?s knowledge or approval. Gibson is careful to point out that while the capability is there, there is no evidence that, in fact, this is happening?despite reports 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. The software operates secretly, running even when its host program is not running. In fact, the adware remains on users? systems and continues to operate even after the host application is uninstalled?Aureate?s software integrates itself into the browser so that it runs whenever the user is surfing the Net?downloading ads and sending demographic information.

Gibson lists 279 programs that use the Aureate system including well-known Internet freebies like Cute-FTP and Go-Zilla but even including free chess 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 crashes with Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator? Check for the existence of Adware.dll in your \Windows\System folder. If it?s there, then you got it!

The easiest way to remove the Aureate stuff is to use Steve Gibson?s free OptOut utility ( but note that this may break the freeware that installed it in the first place.

Free certainly sounds like the right price?but as the software producers and Internet sites struggle to figure out how to make free pay, make sure you know what the real price is for the so-called free lunch.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan