Is Free Too Expensive In A Digital World?

Steve Rosenbaum
4 min readJun 11, 2024

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I bought a Western Digital 2TB drive last week. I used it to transfer some files, and it worked fine. But when I tried to move the files to my Mac, there was a conflict.

The drive had come formatted MS-DOS Fat32. I know, should have known better. But the files were on there, and so I went on a hunt. Western Digital blamed me, and said they’d send me a list of rescue apps (some of them free) and I’d be all set. Hours later I came to the bleak conclusion: NOTHING IS FREE. Free trial really means you can rescue the files — sure! We can get them back, but boo, you’re going to pay a steep price for the “free” rescue.

Which got me thinking about the reality of the “free” web.

In today’s digital world, who doesn’t love free stuff? Services like Gmail, Facebook, and a host of other apps and platforms offer us incredible functionality without charging a penny. But as the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Let’s have a candid chat about why those “free” services might be costing us way more than we realize.

Take Gmail, for example. When you sign up for a free email account, you aren’t pulling out your wallet, but you are handing over something else that’s incredibly valuable: your personal data. Google collects information about your habits, preferences, and connections. The company uses this data to serve you targeted ads, sell to third-party advertisers, and develop new products. In essence, your personal information is the currency you use to pay for these “free” services.

This data collection isn’t just about showing you ads for things you might want to buy. It goes deeper. Remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal? Millions of Facebook users’ data was harvested without their consent, which was then used to influence voter behavior. Such breaches highlight a significant issue: Your privacy isn’t as secure as you might think. Even with robust security measures, data leaks and hacks are all too common.

Now, about those targeted ads: They can be pretty invasive. While some might find it convenient to see ads tailored to their interests, this practice can lead to manipulation. Advertisers and political campaigns can create messages that play on your fears and desires in ways that are often subtle and sometimes unethical. It’s not just about selling products; it’s about influencing behavior and decisions, often without you even realizing it.

Using these free services also means you are often at the mercy of algorithms designed to keep you engaged for as long as possible. This might sound great from a user engagement perspective, but it can lead to an echo chamber effect. You see more of what you already like or believe, limiting your exposure to different viewpoints and reducing your ability to make informed, autonomous decisions.

Moreover, the constant engagement these platforms demand can take a toll on your mental health. Studies have shown that excessive use of social media can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. The pressure to present a perfect life online and the addictive nature of these platforms can have significant personal costs.

Then let’s talk about free trials. Services like Amazon Prime or various software applications offer free trials that let you explore their features. However, to get the full benefit, you often need to subscribe and pay a fee after the trial period ends. These trials sometimes require you to enter credit card information upfront, making it easy to forget and get charged once the trial period ends.

And then there are the streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Peacock. Many of these platforms offer free or low-cost tiers supported by ads. While you may not pay a subscription fee, you still endure frequent advertisements, and your viewing data is collected and used for marketing purposes. Even traditional TV, which used to be “free” with an antenna, now often requires cable subscriptions or comes with advertisements that monetize your viewing time.

So, next time you log into a “free” service, take a sec to consider what you’re really giving away and whether it’s worth the trade-off. Increasingly, free services come with hidden costs, and you might be trading your privacy, your locations, and your deeply held beliefs for a service you’d rather be paying for. Now the question is, can you replace Gmail with a paid service like Proton for just $10 a month? Hmm… free might turn out to be too expensive in a digital world.

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