Why Free Is Bad For You

In 2013, Lawrence Lessig gave a TED talk called “We, The People, And The Republic We Must Reclaim.”

In it, he made an impassioned and articulate plea for campaign finance reform. He described the tiny fraction of Americans who control the majority of campaign spending -- the one percent of the one percent who give $10,000 or more to federal candidates, the 132 individuals who gave 60% (!) of the Super PAC money spent in the 2012 election. “[T]his dependence upon the funders,” he said, “produces a subtle, understated, camouflaged bending to keep the funders happy.”

His argument is difficult to refute. Any creature will place a heightened attention on the source of their punishment and reward, and humans are no different. It’s why children figure out so quickly how to push their parents’ buttons. It’s why people learn office politics. If the way to get ahead in a company is by telling the boss what she wants to hear, or by throwing a colleague under a bus, that’s what people will do. So it’s no surprise politicians adapt their behavior to the punishment and rewards of their particular environment.

The problem, of course, is that the job of the politician is not to keep the funders happy, but to serve the people. Theoretically, we are the customers. But while politicians are technically paid by our taxpayer dollars, their salaries come only via several layers of abstraction and aggregation. The funder money, on the other hand, is direct and concentrated.

As Lessig says, this wouldn’t be an issue if there were total alignment between the interests of the funders and the interests of the people. The challenge is when there isn’t total alignment -- when those interests diverge.

If you have two constituent groups, and one pays you directly, and the other doesn’t, the one who pays you is gonna win. And politics isn’t the only industry where this is an issue.

If the free content from your news organization is paid for by advertisers, your job is to aggregate eyeballs, not educate readers. If you can aggregate eyeballs by educating readers, great -- everybody wins. If in order to aggregate eyeballs you need to offer more stories about the Kardashians, the advertisers win at the expense of our collective education level.

Sometimes, of course, everybody loses. Sean Hannity’s provably false conspiracy has simultaneously failed to make his viewers more educated and lost him advertisers.

And there are those who will say that the interests of the readers and the interests of the advertisers can’t be separated. “If you’re not giving the readers what they want,” they’ll say, “you won’t be able to sell advertising.”

But what we respond to isn’t always what we want. Design ethicist Tristan Harris says product designers “play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention.” Not to serve us -- to capture us.

Harris isn’t just talking about the news media. It’s been said that if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. So yeah, you’re the product for Facebook, Google, Twitter, Snapchat. And yeah, in order to keep the advertisers happy, they have to keep you happy. But keeping you happy doesn’t necessarily mean having your best interests at heart. It means activating every trick in the book to get you to click again, to keep watching, to hit refresh.

In the political sphere, the prize for funders is the regulation, the policy, the tax break or the development. On the Web, the prize for advertisers is… you. Your eyeballs, your attention, and, ultimately, your dollars.

Free is a falsehood. In the end, we pay, one way or another.

Kaila Colbin