When you’re getting something for free, it’s hard to argue with what you get.  But I think there are some circumstances where you can look at how someone else is benefiting from the service they’re providing to you free of charge and then you can see where there’s some room for discussion.

Google, for instance, earns billions off of ad revenue (about $22.9 billion in 2009, in fact).  They’re not in the business of giving free email service for free–they’re in the business of giving good email service at no charge to you so you’ll hopefully click on some ads.

Another interesting example is Skype.  I’ve recently updated to a newer version of Skype and noticed that every time I open it up it shows an ad telling me I should sign up for one of their subscription calling services.  I unchecked the little box in the settings windows to try and disable Skype promotions and notifications, but they’re getting ready for an IPO and I guess they’re pushing to increase the number of subscribers they have.  But I am getting free voice chat services, so not much room to complain, right?  I suppose not.

It is interesting to see, though, how dependent Skype is on its users for their service.  Skype’s network functions (at least in part) on a P2P model.  User’s computers (both subscribers and non-subscribers) are used to route calls and provide directory services.  So while I may get some free voice chats, I might also be helping Skype earn money as my computer routes calls for their subscribers.  I’m not sure, but perhaps I should get a thank you message instead of an advertisement every once in a while.  (It depends on if I am occasionally chosen to be a “supernode” and whether my use of the service costs them less than they earn on using my computer to run a portion of their business.)

Skype’s use of a P2P network lowers their costs.  With a free market, the price of a subscription should account for this:

Service Scope Price
Skype Unlimited World North America + 40 other countries $13.99/month
Vonage World 60 countries $25.99/month