Geert Lovink on Fri, 29 Oct 1999 22:16:07 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Free4What Campaign

Welcome to the Launch of the Free4What Campaign


During the 'technology' week of the five-weeks long temporary media lab in
Kiasma, Helsinki (Finland), work has been done
to put up the Free4What campaign. The starting point was the discussion
about the free operating system Linux. Over the years, we have seen a rise
of free services on the Internet, starting from e-mail (hotmail), web
space (geocities) until the recent boom of free access services. The
concept of the 'gift economy' has rapidly spread and found numerous
commercial applications. The Free4What campaign, first of all, would like
to discuss this trend, in an open and unbiased way. Obviously, in order to
achieve this, we have gathered some provocative, and ironical, approaches
and positions. Please join the campaign, contribute to the open FAQ, and
share your ideas and strategies. 

This campaign has been initiated, designed and coordinated by the
Amsterdam-based Society for Old and New Media and can be
seen as a follow-up of previous campaigns, such as We Want Bandwidth!, the
series of International Browserdays and other efforts to put the public
domain on the agenda. 


Please feel free to answer the following FAQ questions at

What is the prize users are paying for free Internet services? 

What is the business-model behind 'free'? 

How are free internet services related to the rise of e-commerce and the
withdrawal of other resources behind logins and firewalls? 

Are free services the result of the struggle for public access and against
corporate and state control over the media and telecommunication? 

Will the public domain as such survive the free movement? 

Do you have rights as a free user? If you can get paid to surf, you can as
be seen as an employeee, which has workers rights. 

Are we buying a product if we are using free services? Can users complain,
like consumers, about the quality which is offered to them? 

If there can be free Internet services, why can't there be free food, free
cars, free money, free houses, free electricity? 

One theorist, Richard Stallman, has distinguished between "free as in free
beer" and "free as in free speech." But very few people have ever thought
about such a distinction. Are free Internet services more like beer, or
like speech? 

Are free Internet services a good or bad development? 


The following experts have been willing to answer four questions about the
free wave: 

Richard Barbrook of the Hypermedia Research Centre, University of
Westminster, London - Co-author of the essay
"Californian Ideology" and author of the book "Media Freedom." 

Drazen Pantic, mathematician, founder of the Belgrade-based B92 Internet
provider (since april 1999 taken over by Serbian
nationalists), He is co-founder of the Center for Advanced Media in Prague
(C@MP). He has taught, lectured and published widely on use of the
Internet to support independent media and free expression. 

Joost Flint is director of the Amsterdam-based freenet Digital City. This huge network of local and translocal virtual
communities started in January 1994, modelled after the early US
'freenets' such as the one in Cleveland, which was forced to close, due to
financial problems. From its start, Digital City has offered free e-mail,
webspace and dial-in services to its users. 

Howard Rheingold is one of the early pioneers of Internet, concerning
building up communities. From 1985 onwards he became involved in The Well,
then Wired Online, and Electric Minds. He is the author of Tool for
Thoughts (1984), Virtual Reality (1991) and The Virtual Comminity (1993). 
His recent work can be found at

Patrice Riemens is media activist, trans cultural messenger and a former
ambassador of the Amsterdam-based Society for Old and New Media. 

DeeDee Halleck is a media activist, artist and critic, one of founding
members of the video collective Paper Tiger in New York In recent years she has been teaching in San
Diego at UCSD. 

Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, based in New Delhi, is international and managing
editor of the web magazine First Monday, For
two years starting February 1994, Rishab wrote a weekly column, Electric
Dreams for The Asian Age newspaper. Rishab does consultancy for companies
wishing to enter the Indian market; his clients include Sprint/Global One
and Apple Computer. 

How does the current wave of free Internet services relate to the concept
of the Gift Economy? What is being exchanged here, if any? 

DeeDee Halleck: The "free" iso's are like Tupperware Parties. You provide
the refreshments and content and they sell their wares. 

Drazen Pantic: I call this new wave "free/internet/now". It seems like the
most recent business model experiment. The issue is that no one has come
with successful business model for the Internet, so this distribution of
free services goes after large numbers of subscribers that get service for
free - but have to digest content/adds or submit some personal data. The
hidden underlying concept is implication that Internet services are part
of telecom services. One has to pay just for the telephone infrastructure,
Internet services got negligible cheap compared to telephone
infrastructure. A number of mergers of ISPs and telcos - meaning telcos
take over ISPs - justify the trend. 

Joost Flint: At the moment - I think - free services is not about
'exchanging' but about 'creating'. Free service providers are trying to
create market share with two things in mind: increasing the value of their
stocks so they can expand more rapidly using the hype and secondly they
want to create a channel to the market. This channel can be used for
anything. (So they don't have to bother for what actually;-) This means
that building user-profiles databases for instance is not the real
exchange at this moment of time. But this will become relevant - and
intrusive - in two or three years time. 

Patrice Riemens: Not at all, in so far that the gift economy is not
supposed (IMMO at least) to include corporations, at least surely not the
big ones that are in the current game of 'giving away' 'free' Internet
services. In this particular instance, corporatized version of the 'gift'
economy an exchange of sorts takes place but it is: (i) unequal -by
definition; (ii) undetermined - the terms of exchange are unclear - funily
enough, they are even unclear to the corporation themselves. 

Howard Rheingold: In my book, I asked a sociologist why people would
associate online, and he referred me to the notion sociologists have
talked about for some time: collective goods. What is it that people can
do together that is more beneficial than simply competing as individuals? 
He proposed three general collective goods: knowledge capital, social
capital, and communion. Knowledge is being exchanged. Certainly you are
familiar with how that works. And all you need is a way to connect with
people who need to share certain kinds of knowledge -- people with a
certain disease, or hobby, or interest, or profession. Free Internet
services certainly make it easier for more people to do that. 

Richard Barbrook: There is no exchange in a gift economy as only
commodities can be exchanged. What is taking place on the Net is the
circulation of gifts. Although most people participating in the gift
economy of the Net do not expect to receive anything back from the
immediate recipients of their gifts, they will still receive lots of free
goods and services from other participants. Alongside the exchange of
commodities, the circulation of gifts has become a parallel method of
regulating collective labour: the source of all wealth. 

Rishab Aiyer Ghosh: i don't really agree with the concept or the term
"gift economy" to describe what i prefer to call non-monetary economic
activity on the internet. the term "gift economy" implies that
selflessness, or altruism, is the prime motive for production and
distribution of economic services. that people create and "gift" their
work to the internet. on the contrary i believe there is more than
sufficient evidence to show that rational self-interest remains the prime
motive for production on the internet - as it does off-line, of course. 
there is certainly an awareness that people who are benefiting from my
production are not all, necessarily, returning that value to me. however,
there is also a clear awareness that my production is matched in value by
what i consume - i.e. the benefit that accrues to me from the production
of others. to pick an example from the familiar arena of free software,
despite programmers' claims that they are writing "for fun" their notion
of "fun" seems to coincide strangely with notions of rational
self-interest. a community of altruistic programmers would, for example,
have spawned numerous easy-to-use graphical word processors, "free
software for the rest of us" - rather than web servers, network operating
systems, and 3-D graphical development tools which all have a strong
intersection between users and developers. (a web server developer
programs for himself, and never uses a graphical word-processor; an
altruistic programmer would gift the non- programming, graphical
word-processing community something _they_ need) caveat emptor - as free
software programmers face the urgent need to create business presentations
for their VC and IPO funding proposals, we will actually see lots of free
presentation tools and graphical wordprocessors... what is being exchanged
here? well, as with any market economy, what is exchanged varies from
instance to instance. the key "exchange, if any" on the internet is based
on the problem of infinity - the value of my infinitely copied work is
nil; and its solution - each copy has potential value for an individual
consumer. so when i create, say, an article, i am willing to "give" a
million copies away, because i have access to my own personal _copy_ of a
million other individual articles created by others "in exchange". rather
than the term of exchange, which implies identifiable transactions, i use
the term "value flow" - a superset of exchange, which can be used to
describe a classical monetary or barter one-to-one exchange transaction,
but also the transactionless distribution of value on the internet. value
flow requires a balance between what i create and what i consume - this
value is determined by me, subjectively, just as the value of a car i paid
$10000 for is necessarily worth _more than "$10000"_ to me. and this
forces us to look at individual motives - if i am writing because i want
money to pay my bills, i will probably charge for my article. if i am
writing because i want lots of readers - to make me feel loved, or famous,
or give me useful professional contacts - i may consider not charging for
my article. not charging does not make this a gift. it is as much a
rational self-interested decision as charging for an article to pay my

In what way is the current wave of 'free' related to the decades old
struggle for public access to the media? Would it be right to speak of an
appropriation on the side of New Economy venture capital enterpreneurs? 

Richard Barbrook: It reduces the barriers to participation within the Net. 
Of course, otherwise they wouldn't be capitalists. However, the smart
cyber-entrepreneurs know that the exchange of commodities must now be
hybridised with the circulation of gifts. Even Bill Gates is forced to
give away sofware over the Net! 

Rishab Aiyer Ghosh: the current wave of free is ... orthogonal ... to the
struggle for public access to the media. it certainly does make it
possible for members of the wider public to distribute their opinions. the
fact that they would want to do so is yet another clear indication that
they would actually see being able to "give away" their "production" as a
net value _gain_ rather than a loss or erosion of their production value. 
however, the "wave of 'free'" does not, in my opinion, have any causal
relationship either way with the struggle for public access. it would not
be right to speak of an appropriation on the side of VCs. VCs by
definition struggle to make _something_ not free, even in a "free" 
production environment. they certainly cannot prevent other people from
continuing to produce without charge. 

Drazen Pantic: The big question for me is what will prevail: broad
dissemination and "telephonization" of the Internet (in case of what it
will cease to exist as media) or incredible possibilities indefinite
broadcast offers (in case of what everybody will be a journalist). Do not
see the clear answer to that, except that it looks like nothing will be
the same. 

Joost Flint: Venture capital is just a way of financing or do you think it
has a another quality in itself? The only reason venture capital is in it
is because they wan't to get rid of it at a higher price at a later moment
in time. It's all about creating a channel to the consumers or
'communities'. At least the word 'communities' has been appropriated by
the bussiness'community'. A few years ago they would all think that
community is some sort of soft 'civil society kind of thing' that has no
use. Now they think community and money is the same word and it was the
first word they said. 

It's a new concept and you can expect many more things will become for
free. Faster than you think: tv's, maybe even car's or living in a city? 
What about free parking? The sky is the limit of free services. Nobody
knows where it will end. It could as well end whith a huge crash on the
markets after a few years. 

Patrice Riemens: Only in the most oblique way, in so far the demand for an
'universal access' of sorts - itself an ofshoot of the struggle for
equality and democratization, has made it into the Zeitgeist perception of
the marketeers. Appropriation would surely be the name of the game here,
but permit me to twinkle at the concept of 'New Economy venture capital
enterpreneurs'... (err, I copypasted, it's 'entrepreneurs' in fact...) 

Howard Rheingold: Eh? I guess we have different views of capitalism. They
are out to make a buck. They don't really care what happens to people who
are using the same medium for other purposes, as long as they furnish the
traffic to their site necessary to bring in advertising revenues. 
Appropriation of what? Access to the Internet was never "free." It was
subsidized by taxpayers and tuition and employers. 

DeeDee Halleck: The idea of "public access" at least in the United States
is to extract public service from a commercial system which gathers profit
from monopoly control. It is a form of tax by the public against the
corporate profiteers. The "free" iso's are the opposite... taxing the
public for their legitimate communicative use of technology. 

Does it make sense to reject and subvert the free services? Perhaps some
people, on low income, will make use of freeserve, hotmail, etc. Isn't it
a step in the right direction when prizes for telecommunication are going

Drazen Pantic: Rejection of free services is not the way. Nor it is the
subversion. The only subversion is participation and orientation on the
content. People should be stimulated to broadcast content and their local
and personal reality for everybody else. 

DeeDee Halleck: Reject and subvert by any means necessary. But don't
forget Malcom's other aphorism: the chickens come home to roost. 

Joost Flint: I don't think it's a low income thing. Rich people will be
able to gather the most free services. Because they are the ones that are
interesting to have a channel with. Who wants a channel to the poor
anyway? The only interesting poor people are people who are not rich yet
like kids and students. So you could say: rejecting is a strategy for the
rich, and pretending you will once be rich is a strategy for the poor;-0

Patrice Riemens: Rejection is a personnal choice which I would dissuade
of, let alone disallow no-one. But subvertion would surely be more fun. 
The easiest way to subvert a 'free' service is to take the free part, and
shore of, as much as possible, the priced part - go for a 'free' provider
that gives you pop-mail for instance (one of the six contenders in .nl
does). People on low incomes, could be 'enlightened' by voluntary
associations to that effect. This has eg been quite succesful in the case
of supermarket 'fidelity cards'. BTW there is no such thing as an uniform,
homogenous, and inescapable downward trend in telecom-rates. It is not
even a totally clear-cut tendency. 

Howard Rheingold: It doesn't make sense to me to vandalize something
low-income people can use to better their lives in the name of bettering
the lives of low-income people. Sounds like the old New Left and their
contempt for the actual working class. 

Rishab Aiyer Ghosh: unfortunately "free" has many meanings, and this is a
completely different one from its use with Linux software or free content
on newsgroups. hotmail is an advertiser supported business which is as
"free" a service as broadcast television or newspapers. freeserve simply
moves the payment for internet services into the phone bill. "free" 
internet explorer is as free as the 2 blades included with a razor. they
are all entirely explained by classical economic theory and are very
definitely part of the internet's _monetary_ economy! people on low income
will definitely use services such as hotmail - indeed it is rational to
see privacy, say, as a tradable commodity and "sell" it to providers in
exchange for the services they provide, which is exactly what any consumer
of any "free" advertiser-supported service, in _any_ medium, does. again,
telecom prices - especially international prices - are falling for reasons
explained easily in terms of market economics. high competition is forcing
companies to reflect costs in their prices, and telecom services have long
been known to be vastly overpriced - once a transcontinental cable is laid
and its one-time costs have been covered, further revenues are almost 100%
profit - so there is ample room for them to be squeezed by increased

Richard Barbrook: It used to be said that one of the redeeming features of
capitalism is that someone would always sell guns to the Indians. Now
things are even better - they give them away!! 

It seems obvious for insiders that free services has got little to do with
freedom. It looks more like a byproduct, an advertisement gig, in the
fight of the ever merging telcos, in order to increase their market share. 
But does this enlightment strategy, to point at the political economy of
the Internet, bring us any further? Why would people bother? 

Richard Barbrook: It depends how you define freedom. Are we talking about
"free enterprise", "free speech" or "free beer"?? As Humpty Dumpty said,
words mean what I want them to mean... 

However these free services make the Net cheaper and easier for people to
use. Although many businesses will make money out of on-line services,
much of the stuff on the Net is still available for nothing. Despite all
the commercial hype, the DIY ethic has not been marginalised. This gift
economy even threatens some very powerful cultural industries such as
music biz. It is not just that existing copyright material is being
pirated, but that unsigned musicians can now distribute their creation
without having to engage the commercial system. It is easier, cheaper and
much more efficient to give away your tunes as an MP3 than to press up a
12" single... 

Rishab Aiyer Ghosh: Free services in the second sense of free - hotmail
etc - are obviously nothing to do with freedom. i don't think this is
obvious only to insiders. nobody thinks network television is free. or
that newspapers cost under a dollar. most consumers of
advertiser-supported media are well aware - and _made_ aware by publicity
campaigns from advertising industry bodies - that they _pay_ for "free" 
content and services by watching advertising and, in the case of
interactive services, providing information about themselves. Companies
bother to launch such services for promotional reasons, naturally. on the
other hand, nobody, insiders or outsiders, should confuse this with the
other free things - linux, newsgroups. trade and development of linux is
largely _non-monetary_ economic activity; while hotmail is simply paid for
by advertisers rather than users. why do people bother to engage in truly
non-monetary economic activity? well... clearly because it is possible to
receive value in media that are not monetary, and do this in a rational,
self-interested way. 

Drazen Pantic: The freedom is of course the big issue in the process. 
While on the first sight the process offers "the freedom form being out of
the Internet community", the freedom to access unfiltered content is more
and more problematic. It might very well happen that this ongoing trend
will bring some new and unforeseen side effects that will totally outshade
the original idea of business model for the Net. No one - even the
corporate strategs can not foresee the effects of large numbers of that
magnitude. Media critic & and activists should be on alert and just wait
for the opportunity that will certainly appear; one should be ready when
the big tide come. 

DeeDee Halleck: The market will use what it can. The problem is to provide
space and tools to those who have little resources (that can mean in the
way of funds, equipment, ideas and/or will) in a way that inspires and
increases active community-- to have the energy to make more space and
more tools and more inspiration. And more soup. Like the hybrid revolting
media labs. Tactical community always with a kitchen. 

Why would people bother? They shouldn't unless it is fun and nourishing. 
And true. 

Joost Flint: Just to feed your debate: in the past privacy has been a
right. It's 'yours' and you would give something away of it either in
exchange for something or because you feel for it. In the future you will
start without any privacy and you can earn some of it. You will either pay
for it and/or you will be rewarded for something by somebody else (like
the state) with a higher level of privacy. The questions is not why would
people bother; the questions is do you bother? You are the one who is
going to pay for what's been taken away from you. One day being connected
will be mandatory. 

Patrice Riemens: You need not to be an insider, only reasonnably fluent in
the english language to know that 'for free' ('gratis' in several european
languages, 'as a gift' in Greek, etc) has nothing to do with freedom. The
'free' hype does indeed look like as a desperate bid by providers of
various services/products 'to do something' in a situation that has very
smartly described by one of your earlier respondent as 'hypercompetition'. 
I think it has never been wrong and quite often very useful to try to
understand and explain the situation we are living in. And people will
surely bother at one time or another. 

Howard Rheingold: Further toward what? Bother to do what? What are the
implicit goals that you assume with this question? Yahoo was started by
two students. Now they are big capitalists. So? They provide a service. If
you think you can do a better job, with ideologically pure motives, then
do it! You, Geert, are fortunate to live in a country where the taxpayers
allow the government to subsidize cultural instruments such as magazines. 
Great! I love that! That isn't the way it works in the US, much as I would
like it to be so. I make part of my living writing for magazines. I used
to be an editor of a magazine that was constantly cheating its writers,
illustrators, and staff because we were too pure to accept advertising. 
But advertising is what keeps magazines alive. That's the tradeoff that
people in the US find acceptable. I fought it by not accepting advertising
for Whole Earth Review, and as a consequence had to underpay writers and
the staff. So, yeah, advertising is part of the big evil capitalist
system. I'd love to see an alternative. I've actually put years of my life
into working on an alternative. It ain't easy over here. More power to
those countries whose citizens don't mind sending their tax dollars to
writers, editors, and artists! 

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