TANSTAAFL is a term from a book by Robert A. Heinlein (one of the best Science Fiction authors that ever lived) called “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress“. The term means “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch“. This concept is the basis of the plot of the book, which is about a Lunar penal colony and it’s attempt to free itself from Earth domination. Woven into the plot is the idea that things may appear to be free, but somebody pays. In that fictional world, people even pay for the air they breathe.
Do you honestly believe that you don’t need to pay for things? Do you think that cable companies or Amazon gives you free television series and movies? Do you think Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter is free? Do you believe that you get a free lunch, free medical care, free money from the government, or free anything?
The term TANSTAAFL and its underlying concepts are important to remember while you are enjoying yourself on the internet. There is so much free stuff available that sometimes it is easy to forget that nothing is truly free. After all bills have to be paid and everyone needs to eat.
There Really Is Some Free Stuff
Let me back up a minute and state that there are things that are free all over the internet. Really and truly free. Some programmers will write software and give it away as freeware. This is done for a variety of reasons, sometimes with noble sentiments and occasionally with more commercial desires such as advertising their skills as programmers. Other people create websites which contain information and entertainment which is freely available to everyone just because they want to help people or they enjoy writing.
Free trials and samples are just one way to hook you in to purchasing products. Websites also use free promotions to attract visitors. These really are free, although the ulterior motive is to get you to see a product or service so that you can make an informed decision to buy.
When a website or business runs a giveaway, they usually want some of your contact information, especially your email address. However, these tell you what they’re doing upfront so you can decide if that’s what you want to do.
Most Free Stuff Is Not Free
When you are referring to corporations, there is virtually always a need to make money somehow. This should be very obvious, as very few employees will work for free, and most employers will not pay their employees out of their own pockets.
So how does, for example, Google actually earn a living? On the surface Google appears to be very noble, giving away tons of services and features for absolutely no cost. You can get your email, be part of groups, join a club, maintain a calendar, check movie listings and perform literally hundreds of other tasks without sending them a dime.
What Google and other similar companies want from you is your demographics. They need to know how much money you make, what your interests are, where you live, your sex and age and other similar information. Essentially they build up a packet of information about you, called a profile. This profile can be extraordinarily precise, including the sites you visit, purchases you’ve made (and for whom), physical locations you frequent and so on. Every single thing you do on the internet, including your personal computer, your tablet, your Kindle and your phone, is recorded by some company somewhere.
This information is then boiled down into a statistic and sold to advertisers. Let’s say an advertiser is selling women’s shoes, and the target audience is women over 40 and their husbands. The advertiser also knows from their own statistics that people who make between $50,000 and $75,000 tend to make larger purchases. They can tell this to Google, who will target will send the advertisement to precisely that market.
There are many other examples of TANSTAAFL throughout the internet. In fact, you don’t have to try very hard to find them, as one of the major business models of internet commerce is giving free stuff to people in exchange for viewing advertisements.
Viewing Advertisements Is One Way You Pay For Free Stuff
So what’s the point of all this? It’s important to be aware of what you are actually paying for the service or product that you are receiving. That way you can make an intelligent decision as to whether or not you want to be part of the transaction. Otherwise, you are the hostage of the company with which you are doing business.
A good place to begin is to read the terms and conditions of any services (paid or free) that you are using. You should reread them occasionally as they will change once in a while. These agreements are often complex and contain precise legal terms so they can be difficult to confront and understand. Just grab a good dictionary and look them over.
Once you’ve read the terms and conditions another good practice is to use Google or another search engine to find reviews and comments about the services you use. You will almost always find a few, as no service can please everyone. What you are looking for is not the occasional horrible review as even the very best services get bad reviews sometimes. What you want to see is balance between good and bad comments and reviews. The content of these reviews is also important as a company may receive bad reviews on an offering that you do not use. Another excellent source of information is the BBB website.
Another good place to look is in the promotional materials for the stockholders. This is the place where they explain to investors why they should be investing in their company. This often tells you exactly how the company makes money, and it can often produce some very eye-opening results.
Also review press releases and privacy notices. Keep in mind that privacy notices can be changed, and there is some debate about their enforceability (although that is changing.)
I know this sounds like a lot of work, and you may not want to do it all for every single little free service that you get. However, let’s say you are using free web space from a provider. You put in lots of time and effort, only to find out that according to their terms and conditions they own the web site that you just created! Wouldn’t that really annoy you, especially if they tried to enforce it?
Sometimes the terms and conditions produce pleasant surprises. I remember a huge outcry from many photographers who were under the impression that any photos they posted to Facebook became the property of Facebook. If these photographers had bothered to read the terms and conditions they would have known that the only right Facebook gained over their photos was a license to display them. The copyright remains with the creator of the photo.
The point is simple — rarely is there ever a free lunch that is honestly and completely without cost. It’s a good idea to look around and be sure that the lunch does not have strings attached before you eat it.
How does all of this relate to home computer security? These companies maintain vast databases about you and every other person who uses the internet. By informing yourself about who uses this information and what it is used for, you can make more intelligent decisions about your online practices. For example, if you don’t want the large advertising companies to build up your profile, you’ll want to install software that helps prevent them from doing so. On the other hand, if you don’t care or even desire this information be maintained (it does produce more targeted advertisements) then you will want to use a different mix of software.
I won’t belabor this point, but even “free” medical care isn’t free. The costs for hospitals, doctors, medical tests, and everything else is paid for out of the taxes of the middle class. The upper class, the rich people, can generally find ways to get around paying their fair share of taxes because they can afford to hire high-end accountants. The lower class can’t afford to pay taxes and most taxation systems are “progressive”, which means the more you make, the more you pay. Thus, the middle class, the working people, are the ones who get taxed the most. They are the people who pay for things like socialized medical care, whether they use it or not.
Behind every “free lunch”, if you look you’ll find that the lunch is indeed not free. Somebody pays for it, or more likely, many people pay for it.
That’s not to say that free is necessarily wrong. There are arguments that can be made to both sides of the equation. But it is important to understand, especially when advertising creeps into the picture, that there is a cost that is picked up by you, perhaps indirectly, or by others. It’s important for everyone to understand these costs so that they can make decisions about whether or not to engage in the “free” activities or services. In other words, is the free lunch really worth the cost?