An old economic adage says “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” This saying was responsive to a common practice among nineteenth century pre-prohibition bars that provided a spread of food to draw lunchtime drinkers. Well-salted food induced patrons to consume one drink after another. The underlying logic of this saying is inescapable: someone had to pay the cost of the food and, of course, the cost of the food was included in the price of alcohol. Patrons were obliged to buy at least one drink and for obvious reasons, abstainers were unwelcome and quickly ejected.
Yet today, many of us are enjoying what seems to amount to a genuinely free lunch when we use online email systems such as Gmail and Hotmail, map and direction applications, and innumerable other online services available at no out-of-pocket cost to us. Unlike network television, the “price” for which is the time viewers spend watching commercials, many online services impose no comparable charge upon the viewers. For example, there is no obligation imposed upon the user to spend time viewing these website ads, and pop-up ads can usually be blocked.