Sooner or later the penny will drop. It’s (not) toll free.

“Free” is the most important word in the marketer’s arsenal.

There is no such thing as free.

Few would argue with either statement. So use of the word “free” ought to make us feel simultaneously excited and queasy. I’m getting something for nothing. What’s it going to cost me?

That’s the sequence of thoughts we should experience when someone makes us a no-cost offer.  But mainly, we get no further than “I’m getting something for nothing.”

We’re so blinded by the idea of “free” that we never get as far as weighing up its consequences. Or even whether there will be any. That’s why the word is so powerful.

But the consequences are important. They are the price of free.

A contemporary example: Toll-Free (also known as “Sponsored”) Data mobile telecoms services. Under these plans, such as the one recently launched by AT&T in the United States, data charges resulting from certain types of usage will be billed directly to a sponsoring company, and not to the end customer (potentially you or me).

In the many column inches devoted to this subject in the tech press, the question of the price of this free data has been mostly or totally ignored. Simplistic commentaries have claimed that sponsored data will liberate everything from the behavior of the customer (to do more of what he wants while paying for less of what he does) to suggestions that the pent up creativity of the market itself to further expand its menu of services will naturally follow the emancipation of the prospective sponsor.

I think a cynical but realistic view of the latter is “if you give multi-corporates the time and resources to think of new ways to exploit you, they will probably do just that.”

I think it’s laughable to imagine that in the majority of cases, current subscription prices and usage caps are really suppressing any behaviors among mobile subscribers. And it’s even more laughable to imagine that an outpouring of business model inventiveness will follow the widespread advent of sponsored data, at least in so far as it might have the consumer’s interests at heart.

I am even more amazed that anyone, at least anyone bereft of a vested interest, would swallow this sort of gibberish. (As for those in the industry, the telco world has always been given to believe whatever it wants to tell itself.)

But it would seem some turkeys are shaping up to vote for Christmas. Sponsored data is just another in a long line of examples of questionable judgment sidestepped in the pursuit of gross revenue.

Let’s be clear about this, for the end consumer “free” comes at a price.  Once upon a time, (before a grounding in the classics was dropped from the school curriculum) we were taught to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. That lesson is now lost, as sponsored data’s welcome proves.

Sponsored data only sounds good until you realize how quickly those (usually smaller, independent) companies that can’t pick up the tab risk becoming disenfranchised. In a world where the virtual is rapidly outstripping the “real”, this is important. Independent retailers can sometimes survive in the back streets even when they are pushed from the high street. But I think that is far less likely to be the case on the Internet where access and delivery are much more tightly bound together.

Anyone who has ever bought a book from an independent bookshop, or cares about literature for instance, cannot possibly want to do anything that might encourage a world where Jeff Bezos dictates.

So where will we draw the line, where technology is concerned? Are we going to forego or subcontract all of our critical processes and conduits to the highest bidder (or sponsor) and “buy” from them simply because it’s free to do so? And will there be ramifications if that happens?

Toll free data may reshape the communications industry but like a retrovirus (hard to isolate and define the threat at first but near impossible to remove once it’s there) I think it will have real consequences in the end.

Ultimately, you get what you pay for. What you don’t pay for, you often don’t notice until the damage (to an acceptable status quo) has been done. That’s the price of free. At a minimum, it needs to be defined and regulated for the common good.

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