Conscious consumption in the Internet age

Don’t complain about what big corporations do when you’re paying them to do it.

by Sam Blake

There are two notions of what it means for something to be free. The first is the freedom to do or not do as you see fit. The second is free as in beer, the meaning of which should be obvious to college students (only those of legal drinking age, of course). These distinct concepts are sometimes referred to as âÄúlibreâÄù and âÄúgratis,âÄù respectively. The Internet is often considered to be the epitome of free, in both senses of the word. Idealists like that the Internet allows people to behave as they wish (with some obvious exceptions) without fear of repercussion. More pragmatically minded people like that the Internet provides many services that are free in the gratis sense, which allows people to have access to a wealth of useful services like free e-mail, free instant messaging, free streaming video, etc. But with freedom comes the risk of someone trying to take away that freedom. There are two standard candidates for blame when free things start to become less free. One is the government (which I have discussed before) and the other is corporations. Consider some of the big players: Recently, Apple released some expensive new gadget, the name of which escapes me. Or rather, I wish the name would escape me; in reality, you canâÄôt look at any sort of news source without people yapping incessantly about the iPad. Some people say it will herald in a new age of computing enlightment. Others say it will bring us into a dark age of ignorance. I happen to be of the opinion that nothing meaningful will come out of any of it, since tablet computing is not a new concept by any means and because Apple already released the iPhone. Releasing it a second time with a bigger screen is not likely to be revolutionary. Regardless of the iPad itself, its popularity, combined with AppleâÄôs now-considerable market share, means Apple has a lot of weight to push around. And the company is certainly making its mark. For example, Apple has been very deliberately refusing to support Adobe Flash, the technology that makes streaming video and many games work. The company has also been accused of suppressing open-source Web technologies in favor of proprietary (i.e., less free) ones. There is a lot of ongoing debate about whether Apple should be suppressing these technologies, but no amount of controversy seems likely to stop them. Internet service providers are another popular focus of paranoia, Comcast being the most prominent and having probably the worst reputation. A few days ago, Comcast won a suit against the FCC after the FCC demanded that Comcast not restrict its subscribersâÄô Internet use. Comcast recently introduced a monthly bandwidth cap on its customers and has been accused of throttling certain kinds of traffic (particularly peer-to-peer traffic). Since the U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of Comcast, it appears likely that the company will continue these practices, which many of its customers dislike. And finally, of course, you have Google. You canâÄôt talk about large Internet corporations without mentioning the biggest of the big dogs. By providing the vast majority of its services for free (gratis), the company has acquired a huge market share as well as substantial customer loyalty. As a result, it can essentially do anything it wants (libre), and Internet developers are expected to fall into lock-step. As a simple example, Google recently modified its search algorithm subtly to cause faster Web sites to show up higher in the search results list. No one especially cares whether this is the âÄúrightâÄù thing to do âÄî rather, developers are now scrambling to make sure their Web sites are faster than their immediate competitorsâÄô. While GoogleâÄôs unofficial corporate philosophy, âÄúDonâÄôt be evil,âÄù provides some protection, there is no reason to think the company is incapable of pushing against freedoms that Internet users are accustomed to. Obviously, these are not the only large corporations involved, but you can probably see where this is going. A corporation exists to make money, and money is made by acquiring power within the market. Thus, corporations are going to do what they can to acquire power and, by extension, money. This is just as true for corporations that deal heavily in the Internet as it is for those that deal in banking or restaurants. ItâÄôs just that we are accustomed to certain freedoms on the Internet that we donâÄôt have in other domains, so weâÄôre more apt to feel threatened. There is a moral to all of this. You as an individual are free (libre). That means you have the right to believe what you want and the right to act in accordance with those beliefs. If you believe things that are free âÄî in either sense âÄî are ideal, then good for you. But corporations are also free (libre). That means companies like Apple or Google have the right to conduct business in the manner they see fit, including supporting particular technologies and philosophies regardless of whether they are either type of free. At the end of the day, remember that the free market is still free. It also means that you as a consumer are free not to do business with those corporations if their beliefs donâÄôt coincide with your own. So if you ever look at a corporation that does something you donâÄôt believe in, remember the most important thing: You are free to either do business with them or not. No one can make you do it and you will never have anyone to blame but yourself. Sam Blake welcomes comments at [email protected]