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The Price of "Free"
March 6, 2014 - 9:20pm

You’ve probably seen the news. Getty (not to be confused with the Getty) has made millions of their photos free.

Well, not exactly. You have to use their embedded code which includes branding, a bit of surveillance, and other money-making potential. Getty figures since people are already using their photos without paying, this is a way to get some control over those uses and montetize it. When you embed these images, you’re giving Getty access to information about who sees the image on your page and you provide them ad space on your site, a little virtual real estate where they might someday put up billboards.

Also, it’s not quite accurate to say that they are making their photos free. Many of the photos don’t belong to Getty. The copyright for many of them belongs to photographers who contract with Getty so that people who want to reuse their photos can discover them and pay for that use, with Getty pocketing a percentage of the fee. As photographer Peter Krogh points out on his blog, Getty was bought by a private equity firm a while back, and they want to enhance its sale value. Private equity is kind of like combining a feedlot with an abattoir. You acquire companies so that you can fatten and butcher them. Phototographers who fear this will lower prices across the board aren’t too thrilled.

So it’s more complicated than it appears. As Jen Howard, a writer and Chronicle reporter, pointed out on Twitter: “Increasingly it seems like free/notfree is too blunt a distinction for a lot of web-hosted creative content.”

The problem is that “free” today is viewed as both a low, low price and as a lucrative business model, and that has influenced how we think about culture and society.

When I started out as a librarian, doing new things usually involved figuring out how you could carry it off, given the constraints of limited budgets and time. But now you need a business model. You need to study the market.  You need to justify the return on investment. Previously, we didn’t have to justify everything in dollar amounts. It all depended on how well it supported the common good. The sustainability of common goods wasn’t constantly in question. We sustained them because they were good for all of us.

As Cory Doctorow said not long ago, some things don’t carry price tags for a reason. Some things should be common goods. How we imagine our technological future and the ways that we will share digital culture is at a critical point. “We are presently building the electronic nervous system of the modern world,” he told museum folk. We need to do so without assuming that our cultural heritage has to fed into a business model and monetized. We need not-a-business models for a free, open, and fair digital future.

When free is thought of as a radical price, it generally means we’re paying for whatever it is using a different, sneaky currency. We make micropayments of personal information that get aggregated, sold, bundled like high-risk mortgages, repurposed, and used – and not just by businesses.

As we’ve learned, this data made in exchange for "free" stuff is being collected and mined by the state in unprecedented ways. No need for warrants. No need for probable cause of a crime. The price of free, it turns out, is our freedom. And we’re losing it at a terrifying scale.

On the Media, a remnant of the free press that is actually free, thanks to donations and other support, does a fantastic job of covering these issues and more. Their most recent show was devoted to what’s happening at our borders, and you really should find time to listen to it.

It turns out you can be detained at the border without the right to contact anyone and without cause and you will never be allowed to know why. You can have your electronic devices taken from you and their contents copied without recourse. You can be taken to a hospital, handcuffed to a bed, and searched in a manner that amounts to sexual assault, and if you don’t sign a paper saying that’s okay, you will be sent medical bills for thousands of dollars just to teach you a lesson. You can have all of these things done anywhere near a border, because it turns out the border extends 100 miles into the country. You can be shot by border agents, but you can’t read their policy on use of force because it’s secret. And nobody will explain any of this – not to citizens, not even to congress.  I find this incredibly scary.

This doesn’t have anything to do with business models or embedding stock photos in your blog posts. It’s just another indication that we’ve gotten far too comfortable letting others determine in secret what being free is going to cost us these days. Because apparently nothing is really free anymore. Not even us.

Unless we remind one another that "free" used to mean more than a business model and the price we have to pay for security - and act accordingly. 

 

 

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