Dear Topica List Owner

I just received this note from Topica:

In an effort to continue to provide our discussion list service at no charge to list owners and subscribers, Topica will shortly be introducing short text advertisements to be featured with some of the the discussion list messages.


Fortunately, I’ve moved all of the mailing lists I administer over to mailman running on my own server over the last few years. But that still leaves all the Topica lists I’m subscribed to, over which I have no control.

People’s eyes often glaze over when I try to explain why Hotmail and Topica aren’t really “free.” The typical response: “Well, I’m not paying for it. It’s free. Like television.”

How much junk can they force down people’s throats before they finally see that “free” is not “free”? Even setting aside the whole “free beer” vs. “free speech” distinction, isn’t our time and attention itself worth something in monetary terms (i.e., “beer”)?

And what about the fact that we have no say over what changes these services will implement in the future? You get stuck with your “free” email address and your “free” email lists, and there are substantial costs involved in moving to a new service, particularly when your free service tries to make it difficult to switch out (i.e., neither Hotmail nor Yahoo! mail allow you to automatically forward your email to a new address, although GNU/Linux utilities exist that can grab the messages for you—gotmail, YahooPOPs!, FetchYahoo!).

As more and more “free” sites put time consuming and annoying obstacles between us and the services we’re trying to access, I’m hoping people will start to think about “very cheap” as a good alternative to “fake free.” I can provide mailing list services to people at nearly no cost, and I’m involved with a group that’s scaling up for a colocated server that promises to provide storage and bandwidth to friends (and friends of friends) for pennies a month (no profit for us). I’d rather pay 25 cents any day than face the barrage of garbage hotmail and similar sites provide as a condition of getting their free services.