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The dark side of free Internet services

by Eric Lee

For many activists, the Internet has provided a wonderful new means of communication.

Socialists and trade unionists all over the world have spent the last few years creating websites, mailing lists, online discussion forums, chat rooms and so on.

And one of the truly wonderful things about all this is how cheap it has been. Most of the things we have been doing have been done for practically no money at all.

This was one of the real advantages of electronic communications over traditional media -- it was so much less expensive to produce.

But that is also its great weakness.

It has made many unions and left organisations extremely vulnerable to the whims of the market.

Let me give a concrete example.

A few years ago, someone launched a website called Listbot. It offered free electronic mailing lists for anyone who wanted them. Millions of people signed up for the service and happily set up mailing lists. These were used by community groups, political organisations, trade unions, small businesses, and even families.

Listbot became so successful that Bill Gates bought the company.

Now owned by Microsoft, it was inevitable that someone would think of a way of making money out of this. A few days ago, all the millions of people who have painstakingly set up mailing lists -- some of which include thousands of email addresses -- were told that as of the beginning of August, they would no longer be able to use the service for free. They'd have to begin paying Microsoft around £100 per year, per mailing list.

I began getting letters from trade union activists in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK who had built mailing lists on Listbot, asking me what to do. And the answers I gave them were not entirely satisfying. (The choices for those without real technical skills are somewhat limited.)

The point of the story is that by signing up to a free service, we all became dependent upon it. And when Microsoft decided to charge for it, a very large number of people felt compelled to pay up -- having no alternative.

I have seen this happen again and again in recent months as the dotcom economy went into freefall. "New economy" companies that previously could tell venture capitalists how many hits they were getting to their websites now had to come up with profit figures instead.

So many activist websites rely on advertising-based commercial services for their guestbooks, chat rooms, discussion forums, counters, and so on. They are all vulnerable when these companies either go belly up or, in the case of Listbot, start demanding payment.

So what's the solution for trade unions and others who have become increasingly reliant on such free services?

The simple answer is that we're going to have to share resources and upgrade our skills. We're all learning to function in an utterly new world, one in which the generations-old task of stuffing envelopes for a mail shot has been replaced with things like Microsoft's Listbot.

In that new world, our movement needs more than ever people with new skills -- skills to help create new tools to make our work more effective.

But more on that in future columns.

This article appeared in the Scottish Socialist Voice -- "the paper that's NOT owned by millionaires".

This document was last modified: Wednesday, 23-Nov-2022 08:33:35 CET

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