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Privacy, Patreon, and paywalled Papers: the ethics of payments on the World Wide Web

If there’s one way the State of Tamilnadu makes money, it’s through alcohol. While all states levy taxes on it to make their money, the government here actually has a monopoly on the sale of liquor. You can only buy it from the chain of state-owned ‘TASMAC’ shops.

When people are used to free electricity for agriculture, and subsidised bus-rides, and free TVs or laptops or idli-grinders after every election, TASMAC is one of the state’s best reliable sources of income.

Online, you could say advertisements are to the World Wide Web what TASMAC is to Tamil Nadu.

People are used to browsing the Internet for free. If a website told you “Hey, you have to pay ₹2 to read this page, you’d probably close the tab and move on. That’s fine for sites that make money in other ways — but for news sites and magazines, there’s usually no other source of income.

Except, that is, for ads.


The idea is neat and simple. Advertisers submit an ad for websites to display. And every time you click on an ad, the website gets a little money from the advertiser.

Trouble is, websites want you to click on as many ads as possible. So they plaster their pages with flashy slogans, while advertisers track you from site to site, to learn your “preferences” (read: which ads you’re most likely to click on) in ways that many people find creepy. No wonder so many people have installed ad-blockers.

But websites must show ads at all costs. Just like liquor, which the state can’t stop selling even if it causes domestic problems, alcoholism, and even road-accidents, so websites can’t give up the ads they depend on. So they make ad-blocker detectors, refusing to show you their page till you turn your ad-blocker off.

Users respond with ad-blocker-detector evaders, which websites stop with ad-blocker-detector-evader blacklisters, and so it goes on, in a veritable arms-race.


Advertising has evolved over the years. These days, it’s not just about simple websites. There are so many online services — email, social media, and more — who seem to be offering their products for free.

Actually, it’s you who’s the product. And they’re selling you to advertisers.

To earn money, these companies collect your data, learning your likes, dislikes, temperament and preferences in the process, and sell your data to advertisers. This can have drastic consequences, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and subsequent reports of Facebook skewing election results all round the world, have shown.

Cambridge Analytica and other privacy issues have led computer philosopher Jaron Lanier to propose an innovative new solution. Instead of letting companies make money off us in creepy, roundabout ways, why not just pay them to use their services?


One field that’s (relatively) unaffected by politics is science. Scientists around the world have collaborated freely: sharing their findings with one another regardless of politics or nationality, and publishing papers in journals which anyone can read. Science, as the saying goes, is free.

Or is it?

If you try to read one of those scientific papers published online, you’ll often get hit by a paywall. It’s like those websites you’d close the tab on, but the price is much higher. “Hey,” they say, “you have to pay $30 to read this paper.”

Unlike on ordinary websites, you’d have no choice but to pay up. Every scientific paper is unique. So if you have to read it, you have to read it.


How did science paywall manage to survive, in a world where Internet users expect to get everything free? The story goes back to the 1940s, when British science publishing was a mess.

A lot of science research is publicly funded. You pay taxes to the government, who uses some of the funds for universities, who give it out as grants to people doing research.

But with all this focus on research, most scientific journals were something of an afterthought. They were known to be underfunded, printed on cheap thin paper, and often having months of backlog.

Then came Robert Maxwell.


A Czech by birth, Robert Maxwell was an enterprising man who had fought for the British Army, gained a citizenship for himself, and helped the Intelligence Service interrogate prisoners in the nine languages that he knew. His self-professed desire was reportedly “to become a millionaire”.

Maxwell joined a British government initiative to publish scientific work properly — but later, when the government abandoned the project, he spun it off into the privately-owned Pergamon Press.

Pergamon Press had a simple model. Scientists could submit their articles, for free, to any of the journals it owned. Articles would be reviewed by other scientists, again for free, in the now-conventional “peer review” process. And the journals would be sold or subscribed out to university libraries, who were suddenly awash with government funds.

The setup was very successful. Robert Maxwell was a good deal-maker too: when the USSR launched Sputnik 1, western scientists were scrambling to catch up on research. They found to their surprise that Pergamon Press was already publishing, in English translations, the proceeds of the Russian Academy of Sciences.


Maxwell eventually became a millionaire, and his model became the standard for science publishing all over the world. People got so used to it, they continued to pay for science articles even when the whole system moved online.

There is, however, a growing feeling that this setup is unfair. Scientific journals are very expensive, with universities shelling out millions of dollars a year for access. What’s worse, the publishers are basically getting material written for free, having it edited again at no cost, and then charging high rates for viewing.

Taxpayers, points out Guardian columnist George Monbiot, must shell out twice: first to fund the research, then again to see the work they have sponsored.


One person who has gone beyond complaining is Alexandra Elbakyan. Studying neuroscience in Kazakhstan, she was outraged at science journals’ unaffordable paywalls. So she used her hacking skills to create Sci-Hub, a platform that ‘pirates’ papers: making freely available what would otherwise be paywalled.

The catch? It’s illegal.

At first glance, Sci-Hub may seem like a specialised version of the Pirate Bay, a website where you can download all kinds of content — ebooks, movies, music, games, and more — without paying. All free, and mostly illegal.

But when it comes to morals, Sci-Hub has the upper hand. Scientific papers are usually funded by taxes, by the public. So they ought to be free, not hidden away just because Robert Maxwell said so.

The Pirate Bay’s claim is weaker: their philosophy is that you shouldn’t have to pay for content, period. Which makes some sense when companies are constantly cranking up their copyright periods, even when their works’ original creators are long dead. But it forgets the creators still living today.

Take book authors, who, unless they’re lucky bestsellers, often earn less than $100 a month. Every book pirated is a few bucks stolen from them.


Every once in a while, a web page disappears from the Internet. Maybe it gets censored, maybe it runs out of funding, or maybe its owners just decided to take it down.

When you try to load these pages, you get a helpful error message. 404, it says. And then, in case you’re a human, it adds the note: Page Not Found.

404 is only one of the standard HTTP codes, defined in the standards documents of the Web. There are others like 500 “Server Error”, 200 “OK”, 302 “Redirect”, and even one that sneaked in one April Fool’s day: 418 “I’m a teapot”.

Then, there’s 402 “Payment Required”.


The idea of “micropayments” has been baked into the World Wide Web from the start. Well, not exactly, but 402 “Payment Required” shows there was at least a hope, or a vision of things to come.

The idea is simple. It imagines easy, one-click payments on the Internet: think in-app payments, but on the browser. Websites could change a small amount — a few cents, or paisa, or chhertum — to show your their pages. This way, they could keep running without bringing ads into the picture.

Many micropayment services have cropped up over the years, but never taken off. The problem? It’s too much effort deciding Should I shell out for this article? Am I sure it’s worth it? over and over again. And on the Internet, if some information is paywalled, you can usually find it else where for free.

Then people had another idea. Instead of deciding to pay before reading the article, what if you could decide to donate after reading it?


Why do people pirate stuff? Maybe they don’t want to pay.

Often, however, it’s simply that piracy is the easiest way to get access to the content. Rather than go through a cumbersome purchase process, you just search, click, and download.

That’s why services like Netflix and Spotify work so well. They’re legal, they give you a monthly bill, and in exchange you can stream pretty much anything you want.

Big news sites like The New York Times use a similar model: you can read upto five free articles a month, but after that you can buy a subscription for unlimited online access. Medium has takes this modal further with their “Open Paywall”: anyone can post quality content behind their paywall, and get paid based on hum much people engage with their article.

All this points to one thing: some people aren’t looking for freebies; they’re just looking for ease of access.

What if donating money was equally simple?


Surprisingly, the person who made paid content illegally available for free, is also the one who made it easy to pay, legally, for free content.

In 2010, Pirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunde announced a “microdonation” service called Flattr. It was similar to the “Like” button at Facebook or StumbleUpon, but would be backed by real money. Anyone could sign up as a contributor, to fund websites with the Flattr button.

In Flattr, you didn’t have to worry about overspending. That’s because you’d set a monthly budget — $3 or more — which would be divided equally among that month’s flattrs.

So you could flattr away to your heart’s content, and still never spend more than you intended.

Flattr has a limitation: people have to join from the goodness of their hearts; there’s no monetary benefit. The flip side is,when one flattr creator convinces a contributor to join, all other flattr creators will benefit too.

Patreon has taken this model further. There, you “pledge” a monthly amount to those you want to support, and maybe get some perks — exclusive content, one-on-one conversations, or something else — in exchange.

Patreon likes to compare itself to olden days, when rich aristocrats would fund musicians and artists. Others compare it to a subscription model, like a magazine. In reality, it’s probably something in between.

But it also hints back at at time when everything was paid for.


Gmail is very popular. I’m pretty sure 90% of my contacts use it. And who wouldn’t with its neat interface and helpful features like nudges, snoozes, and more?

When Gmail was released, none of these perks were available. Instead, Gmail had a much stronger selling point: it was free.

At that time people were used to paying for services. They would subscribe to an email service, pay for web hosting, and be billed monthly or yearly for their web address.

Some point along the line, people got used to free services. Gmail, with its ad-supported freeness, was one of the reasons. And since ads stopped paying much money, companies had to try other tactics like mining your metadata and selling your attention.

Today, there’s a movement in the other direction.


The Public Library of Open Science, or PLoS, was started in 2003 for reasons similar to Sci-Hub. Keeping scientific work behind paywalls was unethical, its creators felt, and they wanted an alternative.

This time, it was legal.

PLoS is basically a publisher of scientific journals. But the way they go about it is different from Robert Maxwell’s. Scientists pay a small fee to publish their papers — enough to cover publishing and hosting costs — and the work is then put up online, free for all to read.

This is known as the “Open Access” model, and many scientists now choose it as a more ethical alternative. The concept was thought up much earlier, but PLoS did a lot of work to make their publications interlinked and easily browsable online. These days, many other publishers and journals have been moving to Open Access too.


Open Access may be new for science publishing, but it’s not new to the Internet. After all the buzz about privacy breaches, many people are switching to similar pay-to-use services.

Whether it’s the FastMail email service, the Write.as blogging platform, or the Discourse forum hosting service, the deal is simple: we’ll respect your privacy, we won’t use your private data in creepy ways, but you have to pay us a bit to keep things running.

Whether you want to pay money for such services, or use free ones in exchange for your data, is a choice for you to make. Some may pick one, and some the other, but one thing is very clear.

If you want free content, you’ll have to pay for it.


Curious for more? Sources and references for this article can be found here.

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