Three types of free.

When it comes to 21st century culture, media and technology the concept of “free” can sometimes be difficult to pin down. So for my fellow citizens of the Internet I’ve drafted a pragmatic guide to free, in what I see as its three basic forms…

1. Free ride (Hint: There is no free ride).

This is the one to be most wary of. It includes but is not limited to the following:

  • Many of the free games and apps on Facebook (and until recently Facebook itself);
  • At least some of the free mobile apps available for your iOS or Android device;
  • Trojans and the like attached to some pirated software and media.

If something falls into one of these categories and sounds like it’s good to be true, it probably is. That’s because the people who make it are monetizing their users through data mining or some other scheme.

Put a much better way: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

2. Data portability.

Thanks to recent changes this would include Facebook in its current form, along with some other social networks mentioned in a previous post. It would also include any desktop software that allows the user to save their data in standard formats — like your typical office suite, for example. Microsoft Office certainly isn’t free to use, but Google Docs and OpenOffice are.

For free software and/or services to get my recommendation its users must at the very least be able to get their data out of it. What’s yours is yours.

3. Free as in freedom.

As you might have guessed I’ve saved the best for last.

I’m talking about GPL-licensed software, Creative Commons media… Stuff you can not only download and use but build on and share. Such things should scare the shit out of intellectual property barons and patent lawyers and rightly so, because they have the potential to make those particular career choices obsolete.

For the rest of us the distinction between producer and consumer effectively vanishes; we’re all free to create and contribute. We can even make some money along the way, though money is most often not the primary motivating factor.

I think this type of free is the future. How about you?


  1. Three types of free, but is freedom the future? To a large extent it’s here already, widely available, less so used and sometimes not understood. Sometimes it may not always be possible. Do you see a Google Docs suite of the third kind as viable and as technically dependable? Twitter may be of the second kind, of the third, but Twitter simply has more reach.

    I do agree that the first kind is one to be wary of. Sometimes I can’t believe my eyes when I see people’s browsers, full of ads and helper bars, tonnes of authenticated games and apps amassed from Facebook and the like… It kills their performance and it’s dangerous but they don’t realize.

    I go as far as to (try and) work entirely under this adage of CC/FOSS, even with my company. I use open source apps and software. I run sites on Apache servers and WordPress software. I create briefs and whitepapers under a CC/SA license. These licenses work, but they scare a lot of people who feel they need to own stuff.

    In the end, their rights are preserved and protected but it’s not always that clear. I will definitely take away some of your distinctions here to help try to explain and convince them.

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