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Marketers know that one of the most powerful words is “free”.

“FREE CONSULTATION”

“FREE DOWNLOAD”

“FREE TRIAL”

Companies know they’ll get more uptake from prospects when something’s free. What I wonder though is what we’re actually exchanging INSTEAD of money. I think we’re paying more than we expect when we accept a “free” service. It’s just that the cost of what is ostensibly “free” is something we can’t identify right away.

Privacy

If you use Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, Google, Gmail (or any “free” online mail platform), you are exchanging a heap of personal information about you in exchange for those services. I can pretty much guarantee that there is a corporation out there, right now, that knows more about you than perhaps you know about yourself. With little pieces of information combined from all the online services you use, corporations, governments, and criminals (yes, I distinguish between them!) probably know more than what you would like them to know about you.

What does a loss of privacy represent to you? Is that a cost? Most people say it is, but surveys also report that most people don’t read privacy policies, don’t read them all the way to the end before agreeing to them, or don’t understand them fully when they do read them. What can you lose when you give up on protecting your privacy?

Plenty, it turns out.

Job Opportunities

Employers are in the business of hiring good employees. A resume and interview will only reveal so much about who you are as a person. According to a survey from The Manifest, a majority of businesses have rejected job candidates based on what they saw on the candidate’s social media profile.

Your Home

Have a house? Think you own it? Maybe you should check. “Title Fraud” is a relatively new type of crime where a fraudster steals a person’s identity, then takes out a new mortgage on their property. The fraudster then absconds with the money and the victim doesn’t find out about the problem until they start getting calls from the bank or collection agencies asking they to make their mortgage payments.

How can identity theft occur? There are some traditional methods like stealing wallets to obtain government IDs, credit cards, and other personal documents. Increasingly though, there are ways to get the same data about you online, through phishing, hacking, or purchasing information available from data brokers who get their information from – you guessed it – all those free services people like to use.

Free As a Tool For Destroying Society

Most everyone has noticed the decline of the “traditional” media as the internet has come into its own. Television, Radio, and Newspapers are all in decline. There are lots of reasons for this, but it is a reality. They are no longer dominant forms of communication in society. While this doesn’t matter to most people, it does matter to us collectively because the one thing these formats all have in common is that they are the home of journalists.

If you’re a person who wouldn’t be caught dead reading the National Enquirer or other tabloids you have some notion of what constitutes responsible journalism. Decades ago, the mainstream media used to be a respectable part of society. Those days are long gone. With the purchase of media companies by individuals who understood that partisan, emotionally-charged reporting would be more profitable, the mass media has become perceived as biased and untrustworthy – unless it happens to align with your own biases.

If you look at some of the most blatant examples of biased journalism online, you’ll notice they’re almost all free. Media outlets that are seen to be less biased tend to have paywalls protecting their content. What is clear to me is that the less accurate, more highly biased journalistic content online is free and easy to access. What is more accurate and less biased requires people to pay. What do you think people are going to choose.

One result of the free vs paid access to media is an increasing divide between people on an individual and group level. We are splitting off into our own little media bubbles and only reading, watching, and listening to things that we choose. No longer do we need to pay attention to other viewpoints that don’t align with our own, except to use them as examples that justify the righteousness of our own worldviews. This is dangerous. It prioritizes pushing our emotional buttons so we will click more links, visit more pages, view more ads, and make the site owners more money.

We Have to Pay For What We Value

Never has that been made more clear to us than in our current Covid-19 situation. At the start of the pandemic, the Canadian government National Emergency Stockpile System (NESS) had low levels of personal protective equipment (PPE). Basic items like masks, gloves, and protective gowns were in short supply or had even expired. Why? Because the lessons we learned from SARS on how to deal with a pandemic were overshadowed by the cost considerations. The annual budget for NESS is approximately $3 million per year.

Long-term care homes have been massively underfunded for decades. This is not news to anyone who has ever dealt with this industry. We’re paying the price for the lack of oversight of this industry with the deaths of our loved ones.

Responsible journalism is one more of those things I believe we should value as a free and open society. Figuring out a way to keep it viable will continue to be a challenge going forward. We also need to be aware of our own biases and work on developing our abilities to think rationally, to truly listen to and understand those we may disagree with, and foster a society that puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to the things we value most.

There is no such thing as a free ride, and all things that are free have a cost. The old adage of “pay now or pay (more) later” is still true. Expecting things for free means we are devaluing what we receive. In the long term, that devalues ourselves and our society. A few dollars invested now will pay handsome dividends in the long term, if we allow ourselves to think that far ahead.