In the beginning, everything on the net was free. You wanted a website? There were hundreds — maybe thousands — of free offers. Needed web-based email? Hotmail was only the first of many thousands of free services. Dialling up to the net was free, though you had to pay the cost of the phone call. And even computers were free — I got one from Tiny Computers on the condition that I used their (free) Internet service for a year.
It seemed like a Utopia where everything was going to be given away for free.
All of that is disappearing — and fast. In fact the rate of extinction of free Internet services has accelerated to the point where it’s got its own website: The End of Free ( http://www.theendoffree.com ).
It makes for some sad reading. Here are some of the recent free services they list which have either shut down or moved over to a fee-based model:
* Monster.com, the giant online jobs database, is now charging a monthly fee if you want to add “bold text” and “colourful icons” to your free listing.
* Blogger, the free web service which allows anyone to set up a “web log” (kind of an online journal) is reported to be considering a “premium service” which would cost users $30 a year.
* Free email service mail.com is now charging for forwarding emails.
* Internet search engine Northern Light is no longer available for free to consumers.
* Free online diaries Live Journal and Open Diary are no longer accepting new users.
And those five examples all come from the last two weeks!
In the UK we’re already familiar with a whole range of free-to-fee changes, including the complete shutdown of the popular Excite UK portal with its free email and the collapse of nearly all the free Internet Service Providers.
It would have been nice to think that the Internet could somehow be an island of free things in a sea of market capitalism, but that is turning out not to be the case.
In the twentieth century, many were duped into believing in the illusion of “socialism in one country”. In the twenty-first, “socialism in one communications medium” also turned out to be a mirage.
The difference between the two, as Marx would have pointed out, was that history repeats itself — the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.