Cost of “Free” on the Web

Be careful of what you register for online that's "free".

FREE is a very powerful word. It gets our attention almost as well as does FIRE or HELP, especially on the Internet! But when you encounter it on the Web, call to mind Grandpa’s time-tested admonition, “There ain’t no free lunch, Sonny. You’ll have to pay sooner or later.”

He’s right. “Free” on the Internet will often exact a cost.

Case in point: you find a great little site that offers a free gardening e-newsletter. It provides “killer tips” about how to grow kumquats, so you figure, why not? You have a passion for kumquats. It also tells you how to grow pineapples in Vermont, something in which you’re also interested. You figure you can’t get into trouble by giving them your e-mail address, so you click on “SIGN UP NOW. It’s FREE!”

A form pops up asking you to submit more information than is required by the IRS. Below the form appears a list of “Other Interests.” These are offered to you so the site can “more effectively serve your needs.” You click on just about everything, including “Ancient Etruscan Wallpaper.”

You hit the “Submit” button, and sit back anxious to receive your first e-issue.

It arrives a day later. You’re so excited about those kumquats, you eagerly double click. “A word from our sponsors” appears at the top of the e-newsletter with a link to a site selling rugs fashioned from colored paper towels.

Under that, the top content item is “Kumquats.” Your heart quickens and you anxiously scroll down to the “Kumquats” section. Their “killer tip” tells you that nobody grows kumquats anymore, and advises you to switch to growing clementines. You’re crushed. You scroll back up and see “Growing Pineapples in Vermont.” You anxiously scroll back down to read “Pineapples won’t grow in Vermont, but if you click ‘here’ you’ll be entered to win a ‘free’ vacation (airfare and hotel not included) offered by a fabulous Web site selling real estate in Hawaii.”

You’re disappointed, but, hey, it didn’t cost anything.

You trash the document and return to your in-box, where you find hundreds of e-mails from sites selling everything, including that ancient Etruscan wallpaper. Your real-world mailbox is suddenly stuffed with junk mail, and the telemarketing calls start.

Of course, not all e-newsletters result in such “costs.” In fact, most are very informative. I subscribe to scores of them. But what the example above demonstrates is how careful you need to be when you encounter “free” on the Web. Selling demographic information collected over the Internet has become a very lucrative business. That’s the Web’s dirty little secret.

How do you protect yourself? Get a free e-mail account from a major search engine (Excite, AltaVista or HotMail). They aren’t “free” either. You have to read ads, but use that e-mail address when you sign up for anything “free.” The ensuing cascade of e-mails won’t clog up your real e-mail in-box. Be wary of providing private information. You’re better off making up the data. Finally, look for a privacy statement. The site should request your permission to send/sell your demographics to any other business or charity. If it doesn’t, think hard about subscribing, ‘cuz, there ain’t no free lunch on the Web, Sonny.

Article – Copyright 2000 James H. Hyde. Syndicated by ParadigmTSA

EDITOR’S NOTE: has a strict privacy policy about how data is collected and used from this site.

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