The great political philosopher and Nobel Prize winning economist, Milton Friedman, once bluntly said, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” The aphorism was based on the 19th century bar room practice of offering a free lunch – if you bought drinks. And so, we are seeing mounting evidence that the free Internet is going to become subject to “Milton’s Law.”
One fine example was shown by the protests last week in Hungary over Budapest’s attempt to place a tax on internet interactions. The protestors, who have had relatively cost free internet since its beginning, were outraged. The government, trying to recover some of the lost revenues from its now languishing telecom services and disappeared telegraph services, was trying to figure how to squeeze some dollars or florins out of the net.
Hungary is not alone. The users of the Internet around the world are beginning to figure out that the days of free or cheap internet are on their way out. They may live in international cyber world, but the governments of nation states in which they live control the lines and the servers and they see a new source of revenue.
Combined with the general political clampdowns in China, Russia and elsewhere among less freedom loving nations around the world, the “costing” of the Internet is not going away. Even the United States is not immune as the net neutrality issue continues to bubble away and states are finding ways of imposing internet sales taxes. And even the poor old beleaguered news industry is finding ways of charging for “special services.”
So, like it or not, the hippy days of the free internet and open exchange of information are gone. The most social changing invention since Gutenberg’s press is finding out that 19th century logic still rules. Ultimately, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.