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Attention and The Trojan Horse of ‘Free Internet’

Carphone Warehouse has announced a ‘double play’ phone and broadband deal which their spinning as ‘free broadband’. Of course, it’s not free but hats off to them for the spin they’ve managed to create around it.

The deal is that their existing TalkTalk fixed-line phone plan will now include broadband access, for the same price as before. That, therefore, equals free – in their book anyway.

Personally, I don’t call that free but it does signify that the UK ISP market is about to find itself once again in the murky depths of an ‘free-for-all’ (sorry) price war where eventually anyone and everyone will claim their ISP product is ‘free’ in one way or the other.

The return of ‘Free Internet’ to the UK brings back memories of Freeserve – the first successful ISP in the UK (and I think the world) that was able to offer its customers ‘free’ internet through a viable business model (with many, many more companies jumping on the bandwagon once the concept became successful).

Of course there’s no such thing as ‘free’ and in the case of Freeserve the deal worked via a revenue share with BT of local-call dialup rates and premium rate technical support should something go wrong. Mind you, the end consumers still paid ‘nothing’ as they already paid the same local-call priced dial up rates with their for-fee ISP’s.

Overtime the market evaporated as people began to demand a different kind of ‘free’ – unlimited access via ‘toll-free’ numbers in return for a fixed monthly fee. The ‘free’ market (sorry) collapsed and with that Freeserve was sold to Wannado.

Clearly any second-generation ‘free’ internet access product would need to be based around broadband. What’s concerning for me is unlike dial-up there are no immediate in-direct revenue streams like there was with the revenue shares of dialup access.

Companies will still hype their products as ‘free’, the competitive market will no doubt force them to. It’s just what they take as payment will become of interest, and indeed importance.

Google are another company (in conjunction with Earthlink) who are also getting into the free ISP business, by rolling out municipal city-wide wifi.

So what kinds of payment can these companies acquire, and still keep themselves ‘free’? Well, I can see both the Google wifi model and the ‘free broadband’ using attention data as one of the forms of ‘payment’.

(Check out here for a quick brief of the whole Attention Economy meme, it’s pretty much last month’s news now so I’m not covering it here. Yes, I’m up my own arse but then so’s the Attention Economy.).

If the Attention Economy model involving collecting your ‘attention data’. This either this needs to happen at the client – your computer – or at an infrastructure level (your ISP). Software clients can be tampered with, turned off, etc. The infrastructure level, however, is practically unbreakable. Turn of socks and SSH access and you’re pretty much stuck with making all your requests via the ISP’s DNS server = job done.

The issues that arise from this are mainly that of privacy. But also the shear concept of being ‘profiled’ by advertisers based on your entire surfing habits concerns me greatly.

Suddenly Google AdWords, Y! Overture and similar providers no longer push you a load of car products on that motorsport site you’re visiting, but instead serve up a bunch of job sites because that advertising network knows you’ve been accessing plenty of job sites recently.

What’s happening here is the advert context moves from that of being based on the site you are currently looking at to all the sites you’ve been looking at. In their entirety.

What time of the day you access them, for how long, what do you click on, etc. So not just which site genre but also behaviour information that’s being collected too.

Sure, ISP’s have had the ability to do this for sometime – technically forever in fact. But I doubt many have, because their terms and conditions (and various opt-in laws) have precluded them from doing so, and they’ve already got a far better revenue stream of charging you per month.

But once that monthly subscription looks in doubt, what they’ll take next could easily be your attention.

Is that something you want?

Is that worth ‘free’?

Published in News Thoughts and Rants