You get what you pay for


Some years ago we were helping dad move house. Having loaded up we headed onto the road. As we rounded our first corner we heard a horrible sliding noise from the contents of the van followed by an enormous crash. Tim, who was riding shotgun next to me, said “Ah well. You get the help you pay for”. Of course none of us were professional house movers, we were just helping dad out. And it turned out that the enormous crash was caused by a box of cutlery, so no harm was done. But the remark has stuck with me.

I was reminded of it when the terms and conditions for Instragram were changed recently, and people suddenly found that things they thought they owned (i.e. the pictures they had taken) were now ripe for exploitation by the company that was storing them. Instagram decided that they could use any of the pictures held on their servers for profit and advertising. There has been something of a backlash against this, and as a result some back tracking on the part of the company, but I think it has opened up a useful debate. Perhaps, as a result of it, paying for things will come back into fashion.

I’ve always been deeply suspicious of free services. For a start they can vanish or change at any moment, taking with them stuff that might be important to you. And of course, as the saying goes, if you are not paying for the service, you are the product. Facebook sells its ability to target you with custom ads. Google surrounds your Gmail inbox with links to “related services”. And if you ever search for anything (for example my quest for an oven) you will find yourself haunted by matching adverts in every web page you visit for a while.

If something is important to me I’ll pay for it. I put my pictures on Flickr and have done for ages. It costs me around 24 dollars a year to do this, but I can now complain to the site if they ever get lost, and Flickr don’t have to sell my photographs to stay in business.

Maybe in the long term the price of service provision will drop to the point where companies will be able to provide the service for a small fee, rather than have to hawk around personal data for profit. Flickr are obviously keen to cash in on this, and have just launched an offer of three months free hosting to try and tempt people away from “free” sites.