The Cost of Free


Recently I attended a music festival. A free music festival. The same free music festival my friends and I have enjoyed over the past few years, wandering from stage to stage and taking our pick of the fine music on offer. At least that was how it was until last year when it had become so popular that it was almost impossible to get in to hear any of the bands – let alone see them – due to the huge numbers of people attending. This year the festival – sponsored by a major company – required online registration in advance in order to attend these free events. With my radar for data privacy finely tuned as a digital humanist I bristled at this requirement but nonetheless dutifully handed over my name and email address in exchange for a wristband. So was this an exercise in crowd control, a way of measuring numbers of fans attending the festival or a way of extracting valuable personal data from me the client to pass on to the festival and sponsor?

There’s nothing particularly novel or surprising about this. It’s something that every single one of us does every single day; we hand over our personal data in exchange for free. Its what Dr Alex Krotoski describes in her fascinating documentary (Cost-of-Free – The Virtual Revolution -The Cost of Free – Documentary). It is normal for more or less every activity we undertake online, whether its buying train tickets, listening to music or paying a bill, to require the divulging of our name and email address at the very least. And how convenient it is if we can login via Facebook or Google Plus without having to remember another pesky password. In this way those companies can gain access to our friends lists, public profile and more. How many people bother to edit the permissions required for using these apps? Even if they do there will always be an information exchange required. And most of us do it willingly, accepting it as a trade off for access to the free web. As such, says Krotoski we are “ complicit in the deal for free”.

According to her the apparently free Internet has turned consumers into a commodity. “Consumers are becoming the consumed”.

Google is one of the richest and most powerful companies in the world. To google is now a verb, an activity we undertake billions of times every day. Google benefits from our use by gathering vast tracts of personal data about us whilst apparently giving us everything for free. This allows them – and other companies – to sell us advertising that is directly targeted at us based on our behaviour, interests, social interactions and personal data.

It’s questionable as to whether people even care. On casual observation, many seem to accept this as just how society is now and Krotoski asks, “Are we sleepwalking into surveillance?” There is an expectation that we are being watched, a tacit comfort in disclosure in the public sphere, a complacent and naïve trust in online security despite frequent hacks and data thefts. How many people were even surprised at Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance of emails and instant messaging ? Who feels unsettled by listening device innovations like Siri and Alexis?

Everyone seems to accept that once something is on the internet it stays there forever even if you think you’ve deleted it. This is exactly where it can come back to haunt us as we have no control over how our data will be used in the future. Not only are our youthful indiscretions preserved indefinitely but there are shocking cases in history of data collected for one purpose being used for another. Dana Boyd cites the example of how the data on religion that was collected in the Netherlands prior to World War 2 was used by the Nazis to locate Jewish people.

It appears that the cost of free could be quite a high one, albeit one we seem happy enough to pay.


Cost-of-Free – The Virtual Revolution -The Cost of Free – Documentary. Accessed 5 Dec. 2017.