I've been reading the autonomo.us blog and even lurking on their email list for a while, so I've been thinking about "free network services," and what it means to have services that respect users' freedom in the way that we've grown to expect and demand from "conventional" software. This post explores issues of freedom in network services, business models for networked services, and some cyborg issues related to network services. A long list indeed, so lets dive in.

I've been complaining on this blog about how much web applications, the web as a whole, and networked services on the whole suck. Not the concepts, exactly, those are usually fine, but suck for productive users of computers, and for the health of the Internet that first attracted me to cyberculture lo these many years ago. I still think that this is the case, but I've come to understand that a lot of the reason that I have heretofore been opposed to network services as a whole is because they're sort of brazen in their disregard users freedom.

This isn't to say that services which do respect users' freedom are--as a result--not sucky, but it's a big step in the right direction. The barrier to free network services is generally one of business models. Non-free network services center around the provider deriving profit/benefit from collecting users' personal information (the reason why open-id never caught on), from running advertising along side user-generated content (difficult, but more effective than other forms of on-line advertising because the services themselves generally provide persuasive hooks to keep users returning,) or when all else fails, charging a fee.

So to back up for a minute, I suppose we should cover what it means to call a network service "free." Basically, free network services are ones where fundamentally users have control over their data. They can easily import and export whatever data they need from the providers system. That users can choose to participate in the culture of a networked computing by running software on their computer. There are ideas about copy-left and open source with regards to running code on networked services that are connected to these ideas of freedom, but this is more a means to an end (as all copy-left is) rather than--I should think--an end in itself.

Basically, data independence and network federation or distribution. Which takes all of the, by now conventional, business models and tears them to bits. If users are free to move their data to another service (or their own servers) then advertising, leveraging personal information are all out of the window. Even free software advocates look at this problem and say, we have a right to keep network services closed. Which is understandable given that there aren't many business models in the free world. While a lot of folks in the FNS space are working to build pillars of free network technologies, I think some theoretical work on the economics are in order. So here I am. Here are the ideas:

  • The primary "business" opportunity for free network service is in systems administration, and related kinds of tasks. If the software is (mostly) open source and design and implementation can't possibly generate enough income, then keeping the servers running, the software up-to date, and providing support to users is something that provides and generates real value and is a concrete cost that users of software can identify with and justify.
  • Subscription fees are the new advertising. In a lot of ways what a particular service provides (in addition to server resources) is a particular niche community. While federation changes this dynamic somewhat, I think often people are going to be willing to pay some fee to participate in a particular community, so between entrance fees (like meta-filter) and subscription fees (like flickr) you should be able to generate a pretty good hourly rate for the work required.
  • Enterprise Services. We could probably support free network services (and the people behind them) by using those networks as advertisements for enterprise services. See a service on the Internet, and have a company deploy it for internal use on their intranet, and have the developers behind it sell support contracts.
  • Leach money from telecoms. This is my perpetual suggestion, but while most of us Internet folks and network service developers may or may not be making money from our efforts in cyberspace, the telecoms are making money in cyberspace hand over fist, largely on the merits of our work. It's not really possible to bully Ma' Bell, but I think it's a part of the equation that we should be focusing on.
  • Your Suggestion Here. The idea behind business in the free network service space, is that providers are paid for concrete value that they provide, rather than speculation on their abstract value, and as a result we can all think about business models without harming the viability of any of these business models.