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Accessibility Budgeting 101: The Fallacy of “Free”

By: Aylin Dunham
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New Budget Strategies for the New Year

Moving forward in the new year, one of the most common issues organizations face is figuring out how to use their available budgets, and how to budget for the coming year. When seeking or renewing services, you may be thinking about ways you can reduce costs. However, when reducing costs it is important not to cut corners; it is also important to maintain the standards of quality your institution requires. Dilemmas such as this are a factor for nearly every organization.

We previously talked about “Accessibility Nudge Units” in some of our blog posts and how “nudges” like providing a well-designed choice architecture can improve an organization’s accessibility practices and save money at the same time. We recently watched an insightful Ted Talk by Jaron Lanier that reminded us of the importance of choice architecture as it relates to budgeting. Jared Lanier was listed on Ted Talks curator Chris Anderson’s Top 10 List of talks for 2018, and we thought it would be a useful “nudge” to give you an overview of his talk and share some of what we learned from him in this article.

Lanier on Why the Internet Started as “Free”

Lanier explains that selection of the advertising model to fund web companies was born out of the idealism of the early internet, and he then goes on to consider some of the ways these issues can be resolved. He notes that this idealism of the early internet drove web companies to make content free whenever possible, and how this eventually became a standard, with many believing that it would level the playing field in business.

However, as web infrastructure grew, there were many costs that needed to be covered to support new and better websites. In conjunction with this, society began to idolize internet entrepreneurs, and to this day, social media influencers and entrepreneurs continue to push the advertising business model because it can allow companies to make large profits without a corresponding amount of investor oversight. This business model, used by many big companies like Google and Facebook, posed potential problems, further expanding the model of a “free internet” that could not be easily regulated.

Lanier goes on to describe this business model as allowing for “behavior manipulation empires.” He argues that the model, in order to provide free content and services, uses an individual’s personal information and internet behaviors as a means to influence them through advertising. This model, combined with the unreliable quality and misinformation of free websites, has become a significant problem. 

Most importantly, Lanier argues that the model has led to a lack of quality content and the spread of misinformation. To counter this trend, Lanier argues that we should make it possible for people to pay small fees for important services such as search engines and social networking websites and that would force companies to provide verified information and quality content. After providing a couple of examples Lanier exclaims, “sometimes when you pay for stuff, things get better!” 

One such company that follows Lanier’s proposed solution is Netflix. Its success using a paid subscription model has been impressive, with competitors such as Amazon, Hulu, and HBO following suit. Within the past few years Netflix has even released Netflix-produced original films and series to be posted on their streaming service. Recently Netflix and Amazon have been winners of multiple awards at the Golden Globes Awards ceremony in its 76th year, a ceremony that has traditionally given awards to films shown in theaters only.

How the Advertising Model Affects Us 

Considering the topics brought up in Lanier’s Ted Talk, we were reminded of some of the ways that accessibility services are being implemented across the internet. This is especially relevant when it comes to built-in free auto-captions from sites such as YouTube and other platforms. Sites like YouTube tend to pay for these free services using the advertising model. On other subscription sites, the costs for these auto-caption services are often hidden in marked up storage costs.

In these cases one of the unintentional “behavior modifications” that Lanier mentions is that sometimes video platforms encourage users to create and upload as much video as possible, without any consideration for the quality of the video, or whether it is actually useful for potential viewers. Poor quality video leads to exceptionally poor quality auto-captions, which makes for a frustrating experience for people trying to find useful, high-quality video content.

Remaking Our Accessibility Practices 

One of the budgeting lessons we’ve learned from Lanier is that “free” services are often not really free. Including money in your budget for good tools and services is critical. The quality of the end-result is much better than starting with “free” and hoping for the best. We understand that sometimes, getting quality tools and services involves paying some extra costs–this is why it is our goal and mission as a company to offer the most affordable prices for our services, keeping the budgets of all organizations and institutions in mind.

We hope you found this article a useful “nudge” for your organization, and we look forward to hearing from you about the ways you’ve improved your practices.

Thanks for checking in!