You may have heard the phrase "if you're not the customer, you're the product." In short, it means that if you aren't paying for a service online, your information and data is being sold to someone who is paying. But, this is a massive oversimplification.
Firstly, some paid services still collect and sell data on their users. Secondly, many free services and products do no data collection about their users. Most of these resources are what are called "open source" resources. See the "What is Open Source" box on this page for more about what open source means. While most open source operations provide resources free of charge, some encourage donations or have a "freemium" model where the resource is free, but service beyond that may be paid for. When choosing free services, tools, and resources, open source is usually your best bet. The more transparency the better!
What if something is free, but not "open"?
When deciding to use services and tools, in particular, every decision you make about what to share comes with benefits and trade-offs of a personal nature. We always encourage using open source resources, but just because something is free, but not open, does not mean you should not use it. But you should make an informed choice when deciding to use that service or product.
To understand why it is important to make an informed choice about what you do and do not share online and what is collected about you with or without your consent, check out Al Jazeera's Terms Of Service, a graphic novel on data collection and use.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has helpful guidance about informing your ability to make choices on data collection.
To start, consider your personal situation and assess your risks. This is called developing your threat model -- determine what you want to protect, from whom, what will happen if you cannot protect it, the likelihood you will need to protect it, and how much trouble you are willing to go to in order to prevent that.
Is the resource open source or is the code proprietary?
How clear is the resource about its advantages and drawbacks? What data does the resource collect? What does the resource hold onto? Is it open about why that information is collected and what for?
Who created this resource and what will happen if the creators are compromised?
Who maintains the resource? Is the resource actively maintained?
Are there reviews online that praise or criticize this resource? Does it come recommended by people you trust?
Are there any alternatives to this resource, which also do what you want? Are they open source? Do they collect more/less/the same amount of data as the one you are considering? Do these alternatives have or lack the functionalities you think you'll use the most?
What is a Creative Commons (CC) License?
Creative Commons is a way to control the use of intellectual property without copyright restrictions. It is broadly used for open access and open source materials. Below are some of the different types of Creative Commons (CC) licenses you may encounter when searching for free and open resources.
Used to indicate materials require an attribution to the author, can not be used in commercial purposes, and must be shared in whole with no modifications.
What is "Open Source"?
CC BY-SA 3.0 "Swiss Knife," Johannes Spielhagen, Open Source Business Foundation.
Basically, open source means that anyone can see how a resource is made. This means that anyone with the ability can use the source code to create similar products or to make the resource better. Sometimes this means that the resource is maintained by a community. Some open source products charge either for additional product or for related services, or ask for donations.
Open Access (OA) refers to the availability of research articles and the use of these articles.
To quote the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC): "Open Access is the free, immediate, online availability of research articles combined with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment." OA articles are freely available to anyone regardless of whether or not they have a university affiliation.
There are two primary methods that articles become open access, called "green" and "gold." Green OA allows authors to archive copies on personal websites, digital repositories like Digital Georgetown, or subject repositories
like PubMed. Gold OA refers to journals that publish their final articles freely. You can look up any journal's policies through the SHERPA/RoMEO database.
Our Scholarly Communications department has made some great guides to open access here at Georgetown.