There’s No Such Thing as Free

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Gmail and a plethora of cool software tools are FREE! In tough economic times, free sounds pretty good. Bankers have made liberal use of no-charge technology during the past couple of years. As an example, many CEOs, fed up with the number of sales-oriented emails they receive at the bank, have set up alternate accounts with Yahoo, AOL, Gmail, etc. and have important communication sent to those addresses.

The setup process for free technology almost always includes a screen that asks the user to affirm that he/she has read and understands all of the terms and conditions. These agreements are usually dozens of pages long, written in very small type, and nearly impossible to comprehend. The sad truth is that almost nobody ever reads these terms and conditions but nearly everyone clicks the box confirming that they did.

Most agreements for free technology are non-negotiable. The user either accepts the document in its entirety or rejects it. In addition, nearly all of them allow the provider to change the terms and conditions at any time.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of no-charge technology is the imbalance between the value the user gets and what they give up in return. For example, a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that a free online dictionary site downloaded 234 files or programs onto the user’s computer. Of these, 223 were from companies that track the browsing habits of Web users. So, in exchange for receiving the definition for the word they looked up, the user had their web browsing habits monitored indefinitely. This personal browsing history could then be used by the tracking companies for their commercial purposes. Sound like a fair exchange? Hardly.

Users of the dictionary likely had no idea what was going on but everything was spelled out in the terms and conditions. The problem, of course, is that nobody reads the terms and conditions.

As the amount of free software and free “apps” continues to grow exponentially, the potential consequences become more profound. Banks need a much better understanding of all facets of no-charge technology so they can formulate informed strategies and policies.

 Jack Vonder Heide is President of Technology Briefing Centers, Inc. and is one of America’s leading authorities on technology and its associated risks. He will be the opening keynote speaker at the IBA Applied Technology & Operations Conference. Jack may be reached at 630-789-8222 or


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