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The end of free? Please, let it be!

News.com's Charles Cooper says the era of freeloading on the Internet is coming to an end--and he couldn't be any less happier about that prospect.

In the land of the free and home of the brave, we long ago discarded the quaint notion that folks are somehow entitled to a free lunch. Maybe they believe that guff in Lower Slabovia, but not here in the U.S.A. It just didn't stand up to the test of common sense.

But then the Internet burst onto the popular scene, and everything got stood on its head.

A mind-set took hold in which the traditional verities seemingly didn't apply anymore because--hey, this was cyberspace and information just wanted to be free. That was a fetching argument, especially for schnorrers eager to get their hands on proprietary content without ever paying a red cent.

Save the flame mail for another day. I don't like this any more than the next guy. In fact, when it comes to freeloading, I qualify for the all-star team.

Of course, it was all rubbish. The Internet may have been a promising, if not revolutionary, vehicle for commerce and communications--but it hardly repealed fundamental laws of economics. In the real world, there are bills to pay. If banner advertising isn't enough to make payroll, the only other option is to charge money, just like in the physical world.

"Pay for content? Are you out of your ever-loving mind?" was the standard freeloader's refrain when anyone bold (or silly) raised that politically incorrect suggestion.

I'm happy to report that the once-prevailing lunacy is thoroughly discredited and people are returning to their senses. Sure, the era of free stuff on the Internet was grand fun while it lasted; it also was a four-alarm disaster--something that many entrepreneurs, silly enough to have gone along for that ride, can testify to.

No more. Salon and TheStreet.com offer some free information on their sites, but if you want to read the good stuff, then you pay. CNN now charges for viewing its video news clips on the Web as does ABC, among others. The Wall Street Journal has always charged for its Internet edition, and it's just a matter of time before other big name news organizations follow the example.

It can't happen soon enough to suit me.

We now understand that Bernie Ebbers wasn't a financial genius, Pets.com wasn't a brilliant business model and that Napster never had a prayer.
Save the flame mail for another day. I don't like this any more than the next guy. In fact, when it comes to freeloading, I qualify for the all-star team. Each morning, I globetrot from the The Washington Post to Israel's Ha'aretz to France's Le Monde to The Times of India. Then I circle back to see what the Brits are scribbling about, taking in a few more domestic and international cyber-rags before the day is done.

Very nice for me, but there's no way this free content smorgasbord can last. Servers cost money, and people work for salaries. Nobody's in it for the philanthropic rush it offers.

It is said that a free republic demands a free and vigilant fourth estate, but you get what you pay for. I can get all the opinion and reports about other reports from the gazillions of Web logs that spring up every day on the Internet. They are valuable, but only up to a point. Will they be the ones to break the next Watergate or Iran-Contra scandal? I very much doubt it. They don't have the reporting chops, the desire or the financial wherewithal to conduct the sort of long-running investigations that can topple governments.

To be sure, there's always the elegant exception. The late, great I.F. Stone was one. Stone was a veritable world-beater who made the mandarins quake in their boots--and he ran a solo operation. But the Izzy Stones of the world are few and far between. What's more, even Stone charged people who wanted to read his muckraking newsletter.

There's a new governing reality principle in our sobered up, post dot-com era. We finally understand that Bernie Ebbers wasn't a financial genius, Pets.com wasn't a brilliant business model and that Napster never had a prayer.

Oh, and one more: Content was neither born free, nor was it meant to be that way.

Amen, brother.