Abusing “Free”: On Ethics And Deceptive Practices

Have you ever tried to sign up for a “free” webinar only to be bombarded with a five-page interrogation sheet that asks you for all kinds of information that you find yourself saying “I just wanted to watch a presentation”? Did you come across a report or whitepaper you wanted to look at only to end up spending two to three minutes taking an exam and then the “report” turns out to be a two-page sales sheet? How about that eBook you saw and thought would be a good read until you were made to fill out a police report on why you are trying to get educated?

This issue has bothered me for quite some time. It is the practice of vendors, publishers and everyone in between offering “free” software, whitepaper, Mp3s, “special” reports and useless one-page drivel that makes you want to do some harm to the producers of such garbage in exchange for your personal information.

It happens so frequently these days that I think many of us have just assumed that it is the norm. But it is so wrong on many levels not just for the ethical dishonesty involved, but for the fact that it could lead to privacy issues, and in the long run detrimental to the goals of the perpetrators of this somewhat deceptive practice.

Worse yet, it may actually lead to the opposite result of what the “offer” is trying to achieve – land a new subscriber, a potential client, a partner etc. Not necessarily because these victims do not want your product, but because you scared them away in the first place. More important, it drives people who are sick and tired of being bombarded with useless emails and annoying phone calls to give false information.

You get an email or run across a link that screams “FREE! PDF Download; “Free Software”; “Free Report”; “Free eBook” etc. and you go to the website to get this “free” whitepaper or software or book, magazine etc and the next thing you know the site is asking for your name, daytime phone number, your evening phone number, email address, and country. Really? For a “free” offer, you need my daytime phone and evening phone numbers?

Wikipedia describes free as “Something given or supplied without payment (gratis)” and goes on to explain gratis thus:

Gratis is the process of providing goods or services without compensation. It is often referred to in English as “free of charge” (FOC) or “complimentary”. Companies, producers, and service providers often provide certain things free of charge as part of a larger business model or pricing strategy.”

That is right, free is giving or supplying something WITHOUT compensation. So when that vendor above starts asking for your name, daytime and evening phone numbers and your country (for crying out loud), it is no longer offering a free product. Free is when I go to distrowatch and see a new version of a Linux distribution that I want and I click on the download button and the download starts. No stupid forms to fill out, no harassing phone calls two minutes after I hit the submit button.

Free is when Oracle offers a virtualization software like Virtual Box and they give you a direct link to the software without as much as asking for your email address. I know it has a lot to do with marketing, building databases of potential clients and making money through affiliation marketing etc., but please remove the deceptive tag of “free”. It is not free when you are exchanging your product for an email address or phone number. What that means is that you are expecting compensation or payment in exchange for that “free” offer.

Take the two examples below as symptomatic of this problem:

Here you see a page that loads up after clicking on a link offering a “free” eBook called Open Networks:

Notice the bevy of questions you have to answer just to get this “free” eBook.

On the flip side, here’s another website offering the exact same eBook, but without asking for any compensation and actually giving away the book in different formats (PDF and Docbook):

This to me is what “free” means – giving away something without asking for compensation.

I have seen a few websites that seem to get the deceptive nature of the practice of making “free” non-free offers and are now visibly letting potential victims know that “registration is required” to view or download a product.  Now that is as clear as can be. It tells me that if I want to read their whitepaper on a subject of interest, I have to give something back. It could be my email address, name, daytime phone number, evening phone number, country, spouse, number of cars, type of toothbrush, favorite curse word, GPS location, whatever. I know that this is an exchange. No “free” nonsense. The ethical nature of this act alone makes up for the annoying phone call that is bound to follow.

The next time you are tempted to dangle a “free carrot” on your website in order to “force” people to give you their email addresses so you can spam them, please let them know that “registration is required”. Doing otherwise is unethical and is pushing the envelope on deceptive practice.

Believe it or not, not many people are comfortable giving you their personal information these days. Moreover, if you are confident about the value of what you are offering, why not give it away with no strings attached? If the reader sees something they like and want to do business with you, they will find you.

If you insist on your subtle deception of using “free” to “capture” leads, the result is not what I would want as a business or organization trying to build a credible database. What you get will be a database full of fictitious names, bogus phone numbers and email addresses and a lot of stressed out sale people because most of the “victims” they call trying to run a pitch at will not be very receptive especially if all they wanted to do was read a good article or ebook.

Happy computing.