Internet Safety, Part 2: There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

(This is part 2 of a series on internet safety? Check out Part 1 to get up to speed.)

In addition to the threats outside of their own control, users face two problems when it comes to internet safety:  a skill-gap, and a sense of entitlement. Both are problems under our control.

Internet Safety Problem #1: The Skill Gap

The Internet is part of our daily lives, but nobody ever actually told us how to use it.

A meme showing an elerly woman believing a scam, which illustrates just difficult Internet safety can be for those who didn't grow up with the technology.

The Internet is basically run by scumbags who hate your Grandma.

Do you know what deism  means? Deism is the belief that God created the universe and then left it to manage itself. The Internet is a lot like a deist universe: in the beginning some geniuses created the Internet. They filled their new digital world with government, military, and university servers. But soon the proud parents turned their creation over to the powers of the free market and the rest is pretty much history. Now you have to navigate a maze of sleaze and scams to do anything constructive. Internet safety is like driving through an unfamiliar city. You need to remain cautious, be aware of where the “bad areas are,” and know what trouble looks like. I’ll try to teach you these skills in the rest of the series.

Internet Safety Problem #2: Entitlement

The second problem of Internet safety is that we have an unrealistic expectation that everything on the Internet ought to be free, and that goes doubly for those of us who grew up suckling at the teats of Napster.

A meme showing a young woman celebrating a life mileston paid for by her parents. Many folks think that they're entitled to everything the Internet has to offer free of charge, an unrealistic expectation that causes real problems when it comes to Internet safety.

I imagine they bought her an iPod full of songs from Limewire too.

The Internet isn’t any different from the real world: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  One way or another somebody pays for everything, but there are many ways that can happen. The one exception is true Free Open-Source Software, but identifying true open source versus software that’s simply hijacked the term to gain legitimacy is hard work.

“But Brian,” you say, “I found all these neat backgrounds of cute furry kitties, a free download of Elvis’ latest album from beyond the grave, and this free program that makes out with me when I’m alone on a Friday night! How do you explain THAT?”

Keep reading and I’ll explain some of the fun and exciting ways the Internet will try to screw you over.

How Free Services Make Money

My girlfriend wife‘s uncle Bill is fond of saying profit isn’t a dirty word.  I absolutely agree with him, provided that profit doesn’t depend on scamming other people out of their money.  Many will put your Internet safety at risk. Here’s a short list of methods that free services use to make money, ordered from “legitimate and totally safe” to “kill it with fire.”

  • Donation-based services: some services are truly free and won’t ever charge you anything, but they may solicit donations. One example is Wikipedia. Services like these work based on the good-will of their users, and the assumption that honest people will be willing to give what the service is worth to them.  Some of them even hold annual fundraising drives like NPR.
    Internet Safety Rating: Very Safe
  • Crowd-funding: Some services work by soliciting contributions through sites like KickStarter of GoFundMe. The idea is that people will vote with their dollars for services and products that they want to see happen.
    Internet Safety Rating: Very Safe
  • Free software with a paid, premium version. SketchUp is a perfect example. You can download the free version, and if you need more powerful, commercial features you can buy the premium version. The free version is their “loss leader” that makes you want the more expensive product.  It’s sort of like the free samples at the grocery store.
    Internet Safety Rating: Very Safe
  • Pay-With-a-Share: This is another new but relatively save way of providing free services.  A vendor will offer you their software or service either for money or for a “share” on Facebook or Twitter.  Basically you’re deciding if you want to pay for their program or help them reach other people who will.
    Internet Safety Rating: Safe
  • Free trial subscriptions like Spotify Premium. Services with free trials offer their full service for free for a limited time, then either force you to pay or automatically start charging your credit card. Free trials work the same way they work in the real world: they give you a chance to try the full product before you pay for it.  We’ve all received magazine offers that work this way.
    Internet Safety Rating: Safe
  • Ad-Supported Services: Ad-support allow a company to offer their program or service free of charge by selling ad space to other companies. This is one of the most popular revenue options for free services. Most of Google’s services are ad-supported. Heck, even my site and all of my videos are ad-supported because, while I love what I do and I love passing on what I know to other people, I also need to earn a living.  It’s not so different from the ads you might see on public transportation and serve a similar purpose.
    Internet Safety Rating: Safe
  • The Ol’ Bate-and-Switch: sometimes you can’t see this one coming ahead of time. You’ll sign up for a program or service that offers itself completely free of charge, and one day, once the service had become part of your online routine, you’ll be greeted with a Pay Wall requiring you to cough up money to use the service. A recent change at LogMeIn, a top provider of remote access software, recently stopped offering a free package after years of offering a free and paid tier.  The most appropriate real-world example I can think of is the classic drug-deal saying that “the first hit’s always free:” create a need, then use it to hold a person hostage.
    Internet Safety Rating: Safe, but Deceptive
  • Software Bundling: Sometimes the owner of one program gets money to install another program along with their software.  One example is Oracle’s Java. Java is on just about every computer on the planet, yet the program was never been profitable for Oracle or its original creator, Sun Microsystems. In recent years Oracle has tried to lower the loss by packaging browser toolbars along with Java.  Most “legitimate” software that bundles other programs will ask before installing them, giving you the chance to opt-out of stuff you don’t want, but some programs aren’t so kind.
    Internet Safety Rating: Unsafe
  • Adware: To me there’s a distinction between ad-supported software and ad-ware. Software that I consider ad-supported will display ads while you’re using it.  I define ad-ware  as software whose sole reason for existence is displaying ads on your computer whether you’re using the software or not.
    Internet Safety Rating: Unsafe
  • Information Sharing/Theft: Some services might offer you a free download in exchange for your name and your email address.
    Internet Safety Rating: Unsafe
  • Malware: Some free software will bundle things that will harm or slow down your computer.  This sort of software is malware, and sometimes it’s a very fine line between what’s considered malware and ad-ware (or ad-supported software). Some malware will display ads, some change your default search engine and home page, some spies on your internet usage and reports it to marketing agencies, while other malware might use your computer as part of a “botnet” for a larger, more nefarious goal.  And some programs have no function except being a malware vehicle.
    Internet Safety Rating: Very Unsafe
  • Ransomeware: this method of moneymaking is becoming increasingly popular in the last few years.  Ransomeware is software that makes your computer unusable until you pay a fee to fix it. These are some of the biggest threats that home users now face.  There are fake antivirus applications all over the internet which, once installed, reports that viruses have infected your computer and that you need to pay a fee to remove when, in reality, the antivirus program itself is the problem.  And then there’s Cryptolocker: this little gem encrypts your hard drive, then requires you to pay a fee, payable only in BitCoin, to decrypt and access your files.
    Internet Safety Rating: Very Unsafe

The Open Source Exception

The one exception to the rule is open source software.  A program is “open source” if the author has made it’s code available for others to see and change. Open source software is usually quite safe.

Open source exists based on a set of incentives separate from monetary gain.  People write open source software because it solves a particular problem that’s important to them. Some do it to keep their programming skills sharp, or simply for the challenge. Many companies built around open source pay their programmers to contribute to open source projects, and then the company offers a premium, paid product built on top of it, or offers paid support for the open source project itself.

The important thing to remember is that open source is usually free, but free isn’t always open source.If a program is offered for free and isn’t open source, you can bet it’ll try to make money some other way.

Internet Safety Part 1: Introduction
Internet Safety Part 2: There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch