Things you don’t have to pay for, and why



The internet has a lot of services that claim to be “free” in the sense that you don’t have to pay up-front to use them. These are mostly funded by advertising revenues from the websites and by selling information about how we, the users, behave on the internet.

Some people are trying to run services that are different to this. One example is the blog you’re reading now, which is funded by donations and run by volunteers. Wikipedia is another. For anyone who’s idea of “free” extends beyond not having to pay up-front; to include things like not being under permanent surveillance and not having your attention to adverts traded as a commodity; this seems much better.

However, making a switch from corporate services to ones that are free in a more profound sense can prompt us to reconsider the way we use the internet. It might require us to behave differently in ways that aren’t always obvious.

Let’s look at mailing lists as an example. If you’re used to using google or yahoo groups, you’ll expect to be able to send large files as attachments. These will either be forwarded to everyone on the list; or stored on a server, the contents analysed for what kind of advertising to show alongside it, and a link to it’s web address put in your email, which when you click on it monitors that you’re interested in that kind of stuff. In either case, the money to run the service comes from corporate marketing budgets.

When you use a service that’s funded by donations, the situation is different because there isn’t a huge budget to pay for all the server load and network traffic created by the above approaches. And even if there was, it’d still be better to reduce the amount of work the machines have to do, as it all uses energy, and besides, isn’t it a good thing to be aware that you’re sharing a resource with other people, so you’ll only take what you need?

The way this plays out with the Mailman free software which powers is that message sizes are limited to 40KB by default, which means no big file attachments. We could increase the limit but that could have other effects I’ll return to later. So what should you do if you want to show everyone on the list the file you’ve created?



First things first: in line with our focus on Free Software, you should always try to share files in open formats. Not only does this increase the likelihood that people will be able to read it properly, open formats are also likely to mean smaller files with the same amount of useful information.

Next, could you compress your file? Zip files are a common way of doing this. The technique relies on some clever maths that you don’t need to fully understand in order to use it, like most software. It works better with some files e.g. written English text than others e.g. video and audio, because the latter are already compressed and there’s only so far you can go.

Then, think of a place on the internet where you can upload your file. This could be a blog like this one, a wiki, an etherpad, a personal web page (some ISPs give you one as part of your bundle), a dedicated site for network organising, or an owncloud instance if you know someone who runs one. Upload the file you want to share, and make a note of its URL.

Now when you write your email to the list, you can paste in that URL instead of attaching the file. When people get your email, only the people who really want to see it will click on the link, which saves on network bandwidth, and downloaders will all click at slightly different times, meaning there isn’t a big peak in server demand at a single time.

To return to the question of “why not just increase the limit for file size on the mailing list?” you can see that by taking another approach – of having a link to the resource rather than sending the whole thing to everyone – we end up with less load on the networks. The part of the networks you explicitly pay for is usually the connection to your ADSL, cable or mobile broadband provider, and it’s worth considering that other users might have different connection arrangements from you.

If you live in a van or a boat, you probably rely on mobile phone technology which is much slower than most copper wires (& optical fibres), so you’ll be cursing people who send you stuff you didn’t really need to see as it slows down getting to the rest of your email. Similarly if you’re very remote you might have a satellite network connection. Some people have fast (i.e. broad-band) connections and have usage limits which seem pretty big for one person, but what if someone’s sharing with lots of other people in the same house? Or if a neighbour said you could use her wifi as long as you don’t use too much? In the end, it’s all about considering other people’s needs in light of our different situations.

Have you found any other ways of distributing your files? Share your ideas
using the ‘comments’ function below.

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2 Responses to Things you don’t have to pay for, and why

  1. Charlie says:

    Thanks for a useful piece.

    From the article:
    > Next, could you compress your file?

    It’s worth noting that many image formats, like JPG, PNG and GIF already compress your files. For single files, zipping them can sometimes make them bigger.

    And if your file needs to be secret, then using GnuPG to encrypt it will mean that it gets compressed automatically at the same time.

    • mark says:

      Thanks, Charlie. GnuPG is one of those pieces of software that just gets better the more I learn about it.

      Would anyone be interested in coming to a skill-share session just about GnuPG? To give us an idea of demand, please reply to this comment with a “+1″. And remember, you don’t have to use your real name if you’d rather not.

      I’ll start then…


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