The Perils of a Free Lunch
For various reasons, internet-based email accounts are valuable to have. As far as Yahoo! goes, they've just updated their internet-based email service twice this year, in terms of looks and performance. Very nice, but when are they going to charge us for it?
There are huge problems inherent in having a Yahoo! or Hotmail email account, and this stems from the fact that they are FREE services. I've already had to abandon my Hotmail account because the spamming from junk advertisers was simply too overwhelming to keep up with. The folks at MSN's Hotmail find it is not in their interest to help their non-paying customers avoid the spamming mess. Yahoo! seems less prone to that type of freewheeling spamming, but there are other problems. I am getting nailed by "political spams" from folks who know my views. It seems that some fanatical, pro-Israel warmongers have decided to add me to their hit list, as well as the equally nutty pro-Palestinian, terrorist-apologist types. I've had my Yahoo inbox wiped out twice, recently, due to getting 100+ spam messages at a time, and angrily trying to get rid of them.
The problems with a free lunch are obvious. All of these political spamming emails have come from Hotmail or Yahoo! addresses — every single one of them. After all, there are no costs to opening a free account that takes less than two minutes to accomplish. And there are surely few costs to sending out those emails, either. And there is little fear of having to worry about those that run a free service overseeing this kind of abuse properly. So the abusers move onward, with little or no impediments from the service provider. These spammers can't even be blocked because they send out bunches of emails, then they move on to yet another free account from which to send more. And this process is repeated into perpetuity. In addition, since YahooMail is a free service, the capabilities for blocking are severely limited in order to keep costs down.
And worse, the spammers use Yahoo!'s (free) YahooGroups to build "hit lists" from which to send spamming emails. And to solve these problems, you cannot even reach a human being at Yahoo! to voice complaints. They allow for nothing further than emailing them, and you never get anything back but a system-generated reply that has nothing to do with your immediate predicament. It becomes obvious that there is no straightforward way to deal with real customer service people at Yahoo!, no matter how bad the problems.
A pay service would surely have to react better with its customers. Try reaching customer service with your ISP, and you'll find it's typically quick and easy. In fact, most ISPs have round-the-clock service to deal with these matters. If Yahoo! and Hotmail were to charge even $10 or $20 to open and maintain an email account for a year, folks that now open email accounts at will — to spam other folks — would not find it in their interests to do so. Paying for service would weed out all those that have less than serious intentions in using that service.
Both Hotmail and Yahoo! allow for a variety of services that must cost a fortune to maintain. And some of these services are unique and outstanding. However, they flood their customers' email interfaces with hard-to-load graphics and pop-up ads, and all sorts of other aggravating stuff, in order to pay for it, instead of charging folks for email services. Those of us that do pay small fees for the update to extra storage email boxes are saddled with the same advertising gimmicks, as we are paying to support the free riders. The silly, graphics-intensive advertising stuff, besides being annoying, can cause its own problems for customers dealing with dial-up in rural areas, or even with those using older, slower computers.
How about moving to advertising-free, paid services? You want email, you pay for it. If you desire to maintain an MSN community, a YahooGroup, or a Yahoo! photo album, you pay for that, too. Let's face it; anything that's free is easily abused. If these companies were to do away with free riders entirely, they could eliminate a majority of the various abuses of the system they are currently encumbered with. As it stands, Yahoo! And Hotmail typically respond in bulk to customer requests for help by telling them they are too overwhelmed to address any of them personally. Well, they are too overwhelmed because the whole world has their services at their disposal, for free.
Hence, these freebie services tend toward a tragedy of the commons problem. Free riders have zero interest in helping to maintain the integrity of services they don't pay for; services that they can walk away from with no costs to them whatsoever. To solve this, both companies could charge a membership fee in order to access their basic services, and from there they could offer a pay-as-you-go system for higher-level services.
I suppose it has become politically correct to offer all of these services for free so as to allow for the greatest distribution of services possible to all who think they deserve free-rider access. Yahoo! and Hotmail, outside of this free rider problem, have wonderful, convenient, web-based services that serious users would be more than happy to pay a small fee for.
So what are they waiting for? To go belly-up?
August 28, 2002
Karen De Coster, CPA, [send her mail] is a paleolibertarian freelance writer, graduate student in Austrian Economics, and a business professional from Michigan. Her first book is currently in the works. See her Mises Institute archive for more online articles, and check out her website
Copyright © 2002 Karen De Coster