it hasn't been a good few monthsfor freeloaders on the Internet.You might think that in a volatile climate where so-called sure things like an online grocer that delivers food to your door (www.webvan.com) file for bankruptcy and dot-coms go down in flames weekly, businesses would be terrified to charge folks for something that exists exclusively online.
There are, obviously, still millions of free deals on the Internet, but the last few months have, in a strange sense, felt like the beginning of the end of the golden era of online time to me.
In a relatively short space of time, four big sites -- well, relatively big, at least in my bizarre online life -- started to charge their viewers for access.
First up was Napster, which disappeared this summer after an insane flurry of downloading proved that people want to trade Wilco and Serge Gainsbourg files as well as Britney Spears and Eminem songs.
Napster (www.napster.com) has promised to reappear as a pay-per-download service. But without the people's files in the first place, it's all but guaranteed that the new site won't be half as interesting as what used to be up on the Web. It's also doubtful, and this is a familiar refrain, that people will care as much once they have to shell out.
Next to start charging was Salon magazine (www.salon.com), the daily online Net zine. This summer, with the floor about to fall out from underneath it, Salon launched its premium service and began charging readers for access to content.
Salon's content had already started to slip by the time the pay-per-read service was launched, and now the magazine has resorted to having c-level actors pitching for your bucks to keep the site alive.
By far the most ridiculous example of the bilking trend is CBS's attempt to charge $9.95 for feeds from the Big Brother 2 house (www.cbs.com/prime-time/bigbrother/). Nothing much happened in the first Big Brother house, so who exactly would want to pay cash money to watch nothing?
Spokespeople for CBS won't say how many people have signed up, but considering how little attention the show is getting this time around, I'd say not many.
I wasn't particularly broken up about not being able to watch a bunch of no-name shut-ins pretend to be TV stars, but I do believe that if a company as large as CBS is willing to extort cash for something less than a sitcom, something's up.
The demand for cash that upset me most hit me when the English soccer season began last weekend. Last year I spent an inordinate amount of time fine-tuning my own squad on the Daily Telegraph's awesome fantasy soccer league (www.telegraphpremierleague.co.uk).
The league is about as close to real soccer management as you can get without going into a dugout and coaching a proper team. Some 52,000 different squads entered in competition. All summer, after being humiliated by a close rival manager, I thought about how to make this year's team better.
When I logged onto the site last week to enter my team, I was asked to pay 5 per squad. I refused.
Obviously, 5 isn't going to break the bank, but it's the outrage factor that's forcing me to miss out. I'm not prepared to cave in and start paying for something that used to be free. I'm also frightened about what this might mean for the future.
This can't last forever, though. Sometime soon you're going to log onto The Onion (www.theonion.com) and they're going to ask you for a nominal fee before the jokes come.
I consider my withholding of 5 a form of silent protest. Right now, I'd rather log out.