Internet Fees Can Take a Toll

Opinion: Microsoft's commitment to online software is a sign that more pay walls are coming on the Internet, and care is needed to make fees fair and effective.

Can the Internet—the home of "free" stuff—ever stray farther from its roots?

Probably. But the path to pay might not be a smooth transition, and greed—always an element in an environment where venture capitalist and bankers hold so much clout—will have to be held at bay.

Want a useful lesson? Look to the 18th century when the turnpike—the toll road—was introduced to angry English citizens who objected for having to pay for what was once free.

There are some signs that things might be done more gracefully. This weeks announcement that Microsoft would start to offer "live" versions of its popular software was yet another indication that many large corporations think its time to get their customers to think of the Internet as a place, not an adventure.

Most interesting, the company has said it hopes to offer online services—some for a fee, some not—for organizations wanting to do and maintain a constant presence on the Web. The key thing to notice here: The clear, out-of-the-box distinction between "pay" and "free."

Its an interesting approach and it just might work. For a lot of regular folks, the Internet is a dangerous and strange place. Its filled with porn, pop-ups, lottery offers and lots of annoying stuff that makes no sense. Getting past that—past the dreck—has been hard for a lot of people. Making them pay for safety and reliability—which is really what Microsoft is doing—is a good way to start changing their thinking process.

As more and more folks are brought to on-line for information, those sorts of dismissals become less credible. As more and more ordinary folks use the Internet for familiar tasks, it becomes easier to move them from one safe environment—say, bill-paying—to another, say voting. But they have to think its safe.

And thats the hard part. Theres no barrier to getting on the Web any more, and its clear—free universal WiFi—the walls that do exist are going to start to fall fast. But, as we all know, there are jerks everywhere. And the more folks who come on-line, the more jerks get in the mix.

Different folks have different ideas of just how many jerks are out there as a proportion of the population overall, but pretty much everyone agrees theyre there. One of the overlooked aspects of the universe of users of stuff were calling "social software" is that participation is still relatively small. The jerk quotient is tiny. And manageable. So lots of things can be free without horrible consequences.

But look at what happened when a version of that social software got in the hands of regular folks. The Los Angeles Times, in an experiment the paper would probably like to forget, put up a wiki—a kind of Web page that allows readers to change and edit what they read—for an editorial. It was quickly defaced and had to be removed.

The paper may well have been offering the first lesson in how not to manage the introduction of new, flexible technology to a lot of people: Dont make it free.

The easiest wall to put up, of course, is a pay wall. If LA Times readers had been asked to pay a small fee, use their real names, prove they were subscribers or regular users—anything to slow them down—the wiki experiment might have been a bit more of a success.

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None of this is to say that pay walls are going to be universal or well-implemented. By contrast, the software that registers Times Select readers—thats the New York Times new pay service—is awkward and hard to use (Ive tried to register twice without success). Thats undoubtedly cutting down on its readership.

The bottom line, as Microsoft is hinting in its decision to offer some "live" services for free, others for a fee, is that paying gives something value. And that value makes it worth protecting. But—as the English demonstrated years ago with their violent objections to turnpikes and toll roads—these paywalls have to be put up judiciously. And they have to be well-run. Thats why the way to pay should be carefully and slowly negotiated. Here, especially, the turnpike—and the violent reactions the 18th Century Englishman had when he was asked to pay for a road that was once open to free traffic—is a handy example of what not to do.

Pay is coming. You can see it. And its going to be something of a challenge for the business folks of the Internet. A challenge where a little bit of co-operation is going to go a very, long way.

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