Why “free” is not really free

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By Christopher Elliott

Everything you see here is free. The consumer advocacy service we provide every day? It costs you nothing. The painstakingly researched stories with expert advice? Nada. The meticulously maintained company contact database? It’s free, too.

But free doesn’t mean it’s free.

As our spring fundraiser kicks into high gear, I think it’s important to talk about the meaning of “free.

Yes, this is all free

Yes, the consumer advocacy services we offer on this site are free. No purchase required. No fine print. And no shenanigans (the kind we report almost every day). The consumer advocacy, newsletter, stories, and research are given with no expectations whatsoever.

I’ve always wanted to create an organization that operated for the public good, and that didn’t charge for its services. You’re looking at it. (Related: Where does the clever hotel wordplay cross the line?)

Many have tried to monetize consumer misery. All have failed. Their digital bodies litter yesterday’s information superhighway. That’s not because they were ineffective (though some were), but because they were not profitable.

No one wants to pay for something like excellent service, which should come with a product. I get it.

For something to have value, it doesn’t necessarily need to be profitable. Not to go off on a tangent, but if society required public institutions like libraries, schools, and hospitals to be profitable, we might all end up illiterate, uneducated, and sick. (Related: Listen to this song of the road.)

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And that’s why I’m committed to keeping this site free. No strings attached.

But it’s not free

This is going to sound like a contradiction, but the “free” consumer advocacy site you’re reading isn’t free. We have expenses to cover, just like libraries, schools, and hospitals. And, come to think of it, we are a virtual combination of those three. We inform, educate, and fix consumer cases like yours. (Related: Is this fair? They saved $74, but they lost $10,074.)

Private grants and taxpayer money fund these institutions. And that’s kind of how it works with us, too. Twice a year, we raise money from our readers. (Alas, we don’t have the power to tax, but even if we could impose a levy on readers, I wouldn’t.)

The simple truth is, without your donations, this organization would be freed of its earthly bonds and join the rest of the consumer sites in the digital beyond. Not tomorrow, not in a week — but eventually. (Here’s what you need to know about travel and food.)

I hope you’ll continue using this free resource. But as we continue our fundraiser, please bear in mind that if enough people use it without paying, it will be difficult to continue producing a high-quality editorial product.

We’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. We don’t run ads. We rely exclusively on support from readers like you to cover our costs, including development, hosting and legal expenses.

Please consider becoming an underwriter today.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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