A decade ago, an internet video start-up called Hulu boldly declared an end to the era of paid TV. The company announced that users would be able to watch their favorite shows over the internet, “anytime, anywhere, for free.”
Understandably, Hollywood types were taken aback. But in the ’00s, free online TV, like free online everything else, seemed inevitable. Free was the internet’s natural price, and anyone foolish enough to think they could still charge their customers was on the slow march toward extinction. Large newspapers were either pulling down their pay walls or not erecting them at all, giving in to the tech pioneer Stewart Brand’s maxim that “information wants to be free.” Radiohead released a pay-what-you-want studio album, delighting the band’s fans and raising eyebrows among music-industry executives. “Practically everything web technology touches starts down the path to gratis,” declared Wired magazine, which called free services “the future of business” in a 2008 cover story.
The image of the internet as an egalitarian free-for-all — a place where no amount of money could buy you a superior experience, and where no lack of money could condemn you to an inferior one — persisted for years. Unlike the rest of consumer culture, the internet seemed immune to class division. Bill Gates used the same apps, visited the same websites and logged into the same social networks as the guy who mowed Bill Gates’s lawn — at least in theory, anyway.
And now? Well, check your credit-card statement. Today’s internet is full of premium subscriptions, walled gardens and virtual V.I.P. rooms, all of which promise a cleaner, more pleasant experience than their free counterparts. The pay walls have been rebuilt, and the artists no longer work for tips. Hundreds of millions of people shell out for Netflix accounts, Patreon podcasts, Twitch streams, Spotify and news subscriptions. The average American spent more than $1,300 on digital media last year. Even Hulu pulled the plug on its free tier in 2016, giving users the choice of paying $7.99 a month or watching “Ugly Betty” elsewhere.
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Billions of people still use the free internet every day, of course. But it feels increasingly like wading into a sludge pit of algorithmically promoted misinformation, privacy-invading apps and subpar user experiences. Certainly not all of the internet’s woes can be solved by paying your way out of them: There is no cleaner, well-lit version of Facebook in which calm policy discussions outperform racist memes, unless you count apps nobody uses. But there are more options than ever for sprucing up your digital surroundings.
One of these is Sift, a “news therapy” app created by AllTurtles, an artifical-intelligence studio based in San Francisco. The app, which costs $19.99 for six months, is billed as a way to “stay informed about contentious topics while reducing anxiety and stress.” Phil Libin, the chief executive of AllTurtles, said the product was inspired by popular meditation apps like Calm and Headspace, as well as a desire to bring some serenity to the chaotic, sometimes overheated world of online news. “I think it’s becoming clear what things that are allegedly free actually cost,” Libin told me. Many of the internet’s cornerstone services, he added, “just seem to be more and more slimy and exploitative, and I think that people realize that.”
It’s not surprising that given the choice between a free, seedy internet and a costly, orderly one, more people are opening their wallets. What is surprising is how quickly the mood has shifted. Paying for goods and services online used to mean you were an easy mark — someone too lazy or unsophisticated to figure out the necessary hacks and workarounds. Now, subscriptions are a status symbol. Models and influencers line up to join Raya, the $7.99-a-month, invitation-only dating app with an 8 percent acceptance rate and a wait list of more than 200,000 people. Image-conscious teenagers pay $19.99 a year for VSCO, which gives them more options for retouching their selfies. Class division has even come to virtual goods. A study by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England found that Fortnite character skins — they’re like costumes for your avatar — have become a source of social cachet for young kids. Poorer kids who use the free, default skin inside the game report being bullied by their peers who can afford to buy rarer ones.
In its early days, the internet was a great leveler. But we should have known better than to think it would stay that way. Free apps like Twitter and Facebook have become extractive mass-surveillance tools. And once the internet became the primary place where our identities are forged and performed, it was inevitable that some people would want to pay their way out of the panopticon — that escape from the very services we lusted after in recent memory would become a premium good.
A few months ago, as research for an article, I started using a product called Superhuman, a $30-a-month email app that promises “the fastest email experience ever made.” The app was a bold test of consumers’ willingness to pay hundreds of dollars a year for what amounted to a fancy Gmail overlay. It enables some helpful keyboard shortcuts and some cool, if creepy, features like email tracking. I wound up feeling that Superhuman was a good product, but its premium price seemed destined to keep it a niche product for the expense-account crowd. Instead, it spawned a trend.
“I hear a new ‘Superhuman for X’ pitch every week,” Jeff Morris Jr., a Los Angeles tech investor, told me recently. Morris rattled off a list of the imitators he has seen: Woven, the Superhuman for calendars; Mighty, the Superhuman for web browsers; Clay, the Superhuman for address books; and a half-dozen more ultrapremium apps aimed at the same Soylent-drinking, productivity-hacking “prosumer” market. Some of these apps offer concierge-level support and lengthy wait lists — Silicon Valley’s answer to the lines outside Supreme.
Morris characterized the earlier, more egalitarian internet as a historical anomaly, akin to the days before cable TV, when the Big Three had to make shows aimed at a broad mass market because there was no way to target narrower segments of consumers. The growth of the free, mass internet, he said, created a desire for more intimate-feeling products aimed at smaller, more elite markets. Companies had become as discerning as consumers about the tools they used, he said, and the desire to have the best possible tools created a “FOMO flywheel” of demand for high-end products. “You’ve always had Louis Vuitton handbags,” Morris explained. “Now you have software that makes you feel the same way.”
‘You’ve always had Louis Vuitton handbags. Now you have software that makes you feel the same way.’
But unlike with a Louis Vuitton bag, the appeal of these products isn’t to get you noticed — it’s the opposite. People who register domain names at GoDaddy can pay $7.99 extra per year to hide their personal information from searches; virtual private networks, some costing $10 or so a month, offer an additional layer of security by masking your location and encrypting your browsing activity. True privacy hawks can spring for a premium service like Safe Shepherd or OneRep, which scour online directories for your personal information and try to have it removed. Short of moving to a mountain hideaway, there is no way to escape tracking altogether, but if you can afford it, you can draw the curtains a bit.
Buying more expensive hardware generally helps, too. A study by Douglas Schmidt, a professor at Vanderbilt University, found that Android phones — which cost roughly one-third as much as iPhones, on average — collect roughly 10 times as much personal data. (Google has disputed the study’s accuracy.) Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, has been using the iPhone’s privacy features as a selling point for years, calling privacy a “human right” and taking shots at Google and Facebook for their ad-supported business models. At an event in March, he announced that the company’s premium news app, Apple News Plus, would offer high-quality content from hundreds of leading publishers for a flat $9.99 monthly fee. Then, in one of the biggest applause lines of the day, he revealed that in addition to getting high-quality content, users of this new service would not be subject to surveillance. “We don’t know what you read!” Cook exclaimed. “And we don’t allow advertisers to track you!”
Apple’s rivals quickly pointed out that not everyone can afford a $1,000 iPhone. Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed that “privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services.” Mark Zuckerberg has dismissed the idea of a paid, ad-free Facebook, saying, “I personally don’t believe that very many people would like to pay to not have ads.” These positions are self-serving, of course — a subscription-based Google or Facebook might be a much less profitable one. But they’re not wrong to suggest that if privacy becomes an expensive add-on, the rich and the poor will have very different experiences of the internet.
One recent afternoon, I was watching some astrophysics lectures on YouTube — O.K., fine, it was an A.S.M.R. video of a guy eating chalk — when I was shown an ad for The Epoch Times, an English-language publisher funded by the persecuted Falun Gong religious sect, which is stridently anti-Beijing and supportive of right-wing politicians in the West. The ad, a lengthy diatribe about why President Trump’s notional scheme to buy Greenland was a stroke of strategic genius, was full of misinformation and hyperpartisan talking points. After it finished, I got an ad for a get-rich-quick house-flipping seminar. Later, a banner appeared, telling me I could make these ads, and all other ads, go away if I paid $11.99 a month to subscribe to YouTube Premium. I’d seen the banner hundreds of times before, but in the moment, it felt vaguely like extortion — as if $11.99 was the price not just of uninterrupted entertainment but also of fencing off my brain from low-rent scammers and opportunists.
The tech investor Marc Andreessen once said that in the future, there will be two types of people: “people who tell computers what to do, and people who are told by computers what to do.” It was a prescient prediction, but not in the way Andreessen meant it. He imagined a society in which computer programmers would rule over the analog masses. What’s happening instead is something much less revolutionary: The programmers simply built the machines that let big corporations, powerful politicians and savvy media manipulators tell other people what to do, and they are letting rich people pay to turn those machines off.
As the internet moves to an A.I.-driven future, many services we use every day could learn to manipulate us in entirely new ways. In that sense, the free internet may further erode our free will. Lizzie O’Shea, a technology historian and lawyer, wrote in The New Republic this year that the data mining required by the ad-supported internet amounts to “a coup on our consciousness; a takeover of the parts of us that we instinctively believe ought to be under our control.” A YouTube algorithm that shows you political propaganda is one thing; a YouTube algorithm that learns to personalize propaganda tailored to your specific psychological profile is another.
Theoretically, new A.I. start-ups could compete with the giants over privacy and respect for user autonomy. But investors aren’t holding their breath. “If software is meritocratic, A.I. is feudal,” said Nick Beim, a partner at the venture-capital firm Venrock, which invests in A.I. start-ups. He has found that A.I. is an uphill battle for new entrants into the field, and not just because the technology is complicated. “Its power depends on how much data you have,” he said. “And when it comes to data ownership, the large internet platforms are in a dramatically different league than everyone else.”
The ad-based model that powers the free internet could even extend into physical spaces, as technologies like self-driving cars look for a sustaining business model. Already, Google has taken out a patent on a system that would allow advertisers to subsidize passengers’ rides to their businesses. Start-ups have developed tools that would allow advertisers to suggest detours midride. (“There is an Outback Steakhouse 1.2 miles away from your destination. Would you like to stop there in exchange for a free ride today?”) Several large tech companies have begun working on brain-computer interface systems that can turn thoughts into typed speech by using implanted electrodes. Facebook, which presented impressive progress this year on its own brain-reading technology, has not ruled out using this technology for advertising purposes.
So far, most of our hand-wringing about “filter bubbles” and algorithmic sorting has taken place in the context of partisan politics. We find it disturbing that liberals and conservatives see such different news stories in their Twitter feeds, or that Google results are tailored to our preferences. But we have not fully appreciated how much of our internet experience is shaped by socioeconomic status, and the magnitude of the tax the internet imposes on lower-income users in the form of data-sucking devices and predatory ads.
If you’re reading this, you might be one of the lucky ones. Maybe you’re a paying Times subscriber, or maybe you’re Facebook friends with someone who is. Maybe, like me, you have an ad blocker installed on an Apple device that protects your data, you manage your browser’s privacy settings carefully and you weigh the trade-offs of putting devices like the Amazon Echo in your home. But if that’s the case, then you’re already on one side of what looks to be a growing divide. And we should not confuse this version of the internet for the primary one.
What the internet once promised was nothing short of complete informational equality, so that a child in Chennai would have access to the same knowledge as a child in Cleveland. But today’s internet functions a lot like the physical world, with an income-based hierarchy in which everything, from the cleanliness of the water to the quality of the schools, is determined by how much you can afford to pay. It’s hardly the communitarian utopia we were promised. In its current form, in fact, it threatens to exacerbate inequality and accelerate the centripetal forces already fragmenting our society.
Rumman Chowdhury, who leads Accenture’s responsible-A.I. practice, put it in stark terms. “We’re not talking about the kind of car you drive,” she said. “We’re talking about your fundamental ability to function in society — what jobs your children will get when they grow up, what access to information they have. Quite literally, we’re talking about how you view the world.”
Kevin Roose is a technology columnist for The Times and a contributing writer for the magazine. He last wrote about the YouTube star PewDiePie. Maurizio Cattelan is an Italian artist whose work has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions, including at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Pierpaolo Ferrari is an Italian photographer and, along with Cattelan, is a founder of the magazine Toiletpaper, known for its surreal and humorous imagery.
Additional design and development by Jacky Myint.