This week I was introduced to the word "Tanstaafl", which may sound like a new, bottle-conditioned Trappist beer but is actually an acronym for "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch". As we humans wend our weary way towards extinction, we're becoming increasingly suspicious of the word "free" and the internet has played an important role in escalating our cynicism. Thousands of services claim to be free, but surreptitiously accumulate knowledge of our online gambling habit or our love of Delft pottery and somehow sell that information to third parties. As the now familiar warning goes: if something is free, YOU are the product – and that was highlighted this week in a bold announcement by Czech anti-virus company AVG. In summary: if you use its free software, it will be selling your data.
With AVG the third-biggest global provider of antivirus software (after Microsoft and Avast) it's a significant statement, and many security experts have been urging the public to leave it rather than take it. After all, the provider of your antivirus software is in a unique a position of trust, so why continue using it if it has become "spyware"? Some have gone further, mocking AVG's concept of "non-personal" data; you could easily be identified from your browsing history, they say, despite the company's assurance that said data is anonymised. Others have smugly questioned why anyone could possibly still be using AVG when there's other, newer, more highly regarded free software on the market such as Panda, Bitdefender or Malwarebytes.
A more pertinent question, perhaps, is why so many of us are persistently unwilling to pay for a product that is, arguably, critical to our online safety. It seems that our cynicism about the "free" status of software and services is ultimately overridden by the fact that we'd rather do anything than cough up money to use them. Often, the moment we cease to care about our privacy coincides with the moment we decline to tap in our 16-digit card number, and while AVG has been cast as the villain for daring to make money from a product that it provides for zero pounds a pop, at least it's being upfront about it.
With that slightly annoying mime video, it has come pretty close to saying "Tanstaafl" to its customers: if you're not prepared to pay for useful things, you will end up paying in some other, more nebulous way that's becoming increasingly difficult to quantify.
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