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Feb 12 / Mike Ward

Free as in Grain

In the Free Software world, there’s a pair of terms to describe software freedom. There’s Free as in beer, which means that the software costs no money to use or download, and there’s Free as in speech, which is related to the freedom of the source code of the program, and the freedom to change that code, redistribute it, and examine it. Often these two coincide – Linux is free as in beer, and it’s free as in speech – it costs nothing to get, and you’re free to make changes to it and redistribute those changes according to its software license.

In the past years we’ve seen something else though, with things like Facebook and Gmail and really, most of the top-visited websites. They’re free as in beer to the user, but there’s a non-monetary cost – your privacy and your control over the data you generate. You give up many rights and even ownership to most sites when you upload an image, sites collect and mine data on you with every click you make, every ad you hide or follow, and every post you make. You might not pay money, but that is a cost in other forms. Free as in beer still technically describes it, but it’s not quite telling the whole story.

Fortunately, a coworker recently coined a term that I love, and I’ve already told him I’m stealing it. He’s referred to these services as Free as in grain. You get the food and lodging free, just like cattle in a factory farm, but there’s a cost, even if it’s not obvious on the surface. You can log in and talk to your 1,935 best friends on Facebook and never pay a dime, but you’re not the one being served. That’s the grain being fed to you, so you can be harvested later, behind the scenes. I love the analogy.

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