At a time when the Internet is dominated by a handful of very large corporations, it's easy to forget that the web was built by and for people.
More than 20 years ago, "community Free‑Nets" started popping in communities across Canada and around the world. The Toronto Free‑Net was one of the first.
Toronto Free‑Net (TFN) - like all Free‑Nets - is a non-profit, self-funded, Internet service provider (ISP). It is controlled by its own users, who are the organizations's voting members.
Free‑Nets are fundamentally different from all the other ISPs out there. While their priority is profit, ours is people.
Here are some of the benefits of our people-first approach:
Toronto Free‑Net prices aren't just affordable. They are also steady.
Large for-profit ISPs offer low prices only as introductory discounts for a limited time, only to select customers, or only if you lock-in to a long contract for multiple services. Their advertised prices constantly shift to draw attention. Their contract terms get printed in smaller and smaller print, with more conditions and costly penalties. Free‑Net prices remain steady and low (cheap) for all members.
Toronto Free‑Net prices are sustainably low while providing excellent service.
For high speed broadband Internet service, even with the high priced big-name providers, it is common to have to hold for an hour in a telephone queue. Typically, you must re-explain your problem to each new customer representative you encounter.
At Free‑Net, rather than make you wait, we call you back. We remember your problem while it is being worked on. You can get a status simply by phoning. You won't have to re-explain the issue — you will be routed directly to the person who is currently working on it.
For dialup Internet service, some discount outfits offer cheap or even free service. Typically, the tradeoff is that their dialup can be unreliable and that you must view advertisements before seeing the web page which you are trying to reach. Sometimes they provide very limited or even no technical support so, if you encounter a difficult problem, you are on your own.
Free‑Net is established, with a 25-year track record of helpful service and fair prices (in fact, Free‑Net is Toronto's oldest ISP). Toronto Free‑Net provides a premium service but at cheap prices.
While other providers are, by their commercial nature, required to pursue profit and to charge the highest price that the market will bear, Toronto Free‑Net prices are always reasonable because Free‑Net members would strike down any attempt to set inappropriately high prices. Voting on prices isn't something that other ISPs let their customers do!
Because Toronto Free‑Net prices are controlled by the members, Free‑Net acts as a competitive check on the prices of commercial Internet providers: its low prices help keep overall market prices affordable. Thus, Toronto Free‑Net defends all Torontonians, not just Free‑Net members, from gouging.
Occasionally, Free‑Net members move out of town or find a short-term bargain, and switch their dialup or high speed DSL access to a competitor. Members are free to switch to another ISP for their dialup or broadband Internet connection, yet to continue using their Free‑Net webspace and email, at the free of charge level, as their permanent Internet presence. Their free of charge webspace and email will remain free of advertising and without restrictions on the method of access.
All members also receive dialup Internet access at the free of charge level. For members who currently use another ISP for their Internet connection, Toronto Free‑Net's free of charge dialup is a useful backup when things go wrong with their other broadband or dialup access.
Toronto Free‑Net continues to offer useful features that people want but which even high-priced ISPs have dropped, stranding customers, to focus on more lucrative options. Because Free‑Net members are the ones who decide on which services are offered, they know that they can depend on Free‑NetFree‑Net to continue providing the services they need. Examples of "old-fashioned" services include webspace, Usenet, telnet for command-line email access, and text-only (non-PPP, BBS-style) dialup.
Space in which to publish your own web pages used to be included in the basic service of all ISPs. But the commercial landscape is changing. Some ISPs now require you to pay extra for webspace, or to purchase it from a third party, or they continue to "include" it but they out-source it to a "free" webspace company which displays its own advertisements on your pages. Thus, you pay the same, or more, for your Internet access but it includes less! Contrarily, Toronto Free‑Net includes webspace in all access levels. At Free‑Net, you have complete control over what is displayed on your web pages. No advertising is forced upon you, not even at the free of charge level.
Usenet is a non-commercial distributed system of discussion forums. Yahoo Groups is an example of a similar commercial service.
Usenet is run cooperatively, much like the Internet itself. It is not owned nor controlled by any one corporation. Thus, unlike the discussion forums that have been developed by social media companies since the late 1990s, no single entity can easily censor Usenet nor can one company obtain exclusive rents from it. Commercial advertising is prohibited.
Since the early 1980s, Usenet is the heart of online debate. It is an effective communication medium. It is efficient and accessible even to people with the slowest dialup connections. But it is a textual, not a graphical medium, so it doesn't show well on a glossy advertisement.
Some ISPs have dropped it. Others avoid mentioning it, apparently hoping that, through silence and continued neglect, demand will drop, making it easier to eliminate Usenet altogether. Their hope is justified: most people who got their first Internet access at a mainstream ISP after the year 2000 have not heard of Usenet. They instead frequent Yahoo groups and social networking sites, all of which are controlled by for-profit corporations. Though these sites have their uses, they are ill suited to the type of extended dialogue and oratory engendered by the medium of Usenet news.
The unspoken truth is that all ISPs would prefer that their customers buy a Usenet feed from a third party provider. This is because Usenet's architecture puts most of the weight on the ISP's servers and on the ISP's upstream pipeline rather than on the last mile of wire to your home. This makes it unprofitable to include Usenet with your Internet access. On the other hand, services like YouTube entice the consumer to pay more — to upgrade to high speed, to download more gigabytes per month, etc. Commercial ISPs look after their shareholders' interests and promote YouTube, not Usenet.
Toronto Free‑Net continues to include Usenet service in its high speed access levels and hopes to bring it back for dialup users too. Because Free‑Net's mission includes educating the community on how to participate meaningfully on the Internet, Free‑Net volunteers are as likely to teach you about Usenet as about YouTube.
Internet service providers are information carriers, like telephone and telegraph providers. They have an implicit duty to society and to their users, to protect the freedoms of speech and of access to public information, and to safeguard the privacy and security of personal data and of private communications. For example, users depend on their Internet provider in order to reach information on the web as well as to send email to their correspondents. It is the ISP's job to provide these communication services and to not interfere. Toronto Free‑Net takes this responsibility seriously. Some ISPs don't.
DNS (Domain Name Service) is the technology that translates domain names, like www.torfree.net , into the numeric addresses that are used by the Internet under the hood, like 126.96.36.199. These numeric addresses are known as Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. The average Internet user doesn't think about all this — domain names on the web "just work". Yet, some ISPs are messing with this system in a scheme to profit doubly from service for which you already paid.
Normally, DNS works like this: you type a URL (Universal Resource Locator — the address of a web page) into your web browser. Your web browser then tries to look up that web page's IP address. If you made a typo, your Internet provider's DNS server sends an error back to your web browser. Your browser then displays a message, telling you that this address is non-existent, so you can double-check what you typed.
But currently, the DNS servers of some Toronto ISPs return no error. Instead, they redirect you to that ISP's own web server. There, they give you the "helpful" option of doing a web search through their own affiliate search engine, which displays advertisements. Your ISP gets paid for showing you those advertisements.
So long as you are using a web browser, you are at least made aware of what happened. Not so if you were using anything but a web browser.
If you were using, say, an email client, like Microsoft Outlook, a telnet or ssh client, like PuTTY, or an instant messaging client, like ICQ, you will end up getting a very misleading error message that will make you think that the site you were trying to reach was down, rather than realizing that you made a typing error.
Thus, though you paid, as part of your Internet access, for working, standards-compliant DNS service, you instead get broken DNS service while your ISP collects extra cash by displaying commercial advertisements in your web browser.
Toronto Free‑Net does not profiteer from your typos! Free‑Net provides fully standards-compliant DNS service.
An ISP has the power to block your access to websites it dislikes. There have been unethical uses of this power, even here in Canada, where an ISP prevented its own paying users from accessing websites which spoke against it. This kind of impropriety does not happen at Toronto Free‑Net! Free‑Net is controlled by its own users, who are voting members, rather than by a few private owners. Free‑Net serves the needs of its users by acting ethically and in the public interest.
ISPs also have the ability to alter the content of web pages transmitted through their networks, on the fly, as you reach for them. So far, other ISPs use this technology only to alert their customers about billing matters. But the technology allows much more. Looking for information on something controversial? An unethical ISP can hide or alter any part of a web page of which it disapproves, when you try to view that page through that ISP. You won't notice that this happened unless you try to access the same pages through an ISP that doesn't filter. Toronto Free‑Net, being community-owned, is committed to protecting your right to information without censorship.
Commercial ISPs have no motive to spend time and money on teaching cost-saving skills to their customers. They prefer, and recommend, solutions that increase their profits. Toronto Free‑Net's goals, on the other hand, are furthered by volunteers who want to improve their community. This causes Free‑Net, as a corporate entity, to focus on member needs rather than on maximizing profit.
For example, textual information gets downloaded much faster than pictures. The cheapest way to increase the speed at which you can look up some quick facts on the web is to temporarily disable graphics in your web browser — and that's the solution that Free‑Net staff will point out first. But a commercial ISP will advise you to purchase a higher speed connection rather than teach you how to turn off advertisements which you didn't want in the first place. This is more costly for you but more profitable for the ISP.
Another problem, faced by users of online services like google's webmail ("gmail"), is that you must be online to access them. For dialup users, this means staying online longer. A commercial ISP will encourage you to purchase additional dialup time or to switch to high speed, which is always online. Again, the ISP profits more, as you buy a more expensive service. Toronto Free‑Net offers webmail too, for the convenience of those users who prefer it. Free‑Net also welcomes your purchase of high speed or of unlimited dialup! But Free‑Net staff will also show you how to reduce your dialup time by using an off-line email client, like Thunderbird or Outlook. We will encourage you to seek the lowest-cost access level that is right for you.
Toronto Free‑Net is run by its members. This means that, at Free‑Net, you get a say in the making of policies, in the choice of services, even in the prices, through your vote at general meetings. All members, regardless of access level, can make proposals at Free‑Net general meetings and get equal voting rights on decisions made at those meetings.
Also, members have the opportunity to volunteer and, thus, to help shape the organization more directly. By choosing the Free‑Net projects towards which you direct your volunteer time, you are empowered to share in the development of those features which matter to you. In the final analysis, you can seek authorization to implement something yourself, and see it done right!
Toronto Free‑Net users have more direct access to inside information because they are voting members. They can get real answers to questions about the layout of the network on which they depend, about the inner workings of the technologies we use, about underlying costs, causes of system problems, operating procedures, the state and direction of the Internet industry, Free‑Net's finances & future plans, etc.
Some information must be restricted to prevent abuse, to protect competitive advantages and, of course, to safeguard personal information and privacy. But Free‑Net's culture is extremely open, compared to its commercial competitors. The monthly meetings of Free‑Net's board of directors are open to all members. Reports at annual general meetings are very informative also. Free‑Net's officers and staff are easily reachable and welcoming towards curious members. Finally, one can gain an insider's knowledge of Toronto Free‑Net simply by volunteering.
By comparison, commercial ISPs are very secretive toward their customers. Even simple questions, intended to help you understand how to better take advantage of their service or even to evaluate the service level for which you are paying, often encounter a brick wall. Typically, the staff who answer customer calls at commercial ISPs either won't have the answer you seek or will refuse to give you a straight answer. Ultimately, as you are merely their customer, you simply aren't entitled to some answers.
Toronto Free‑Net welcomes all people and all operating systems and equipment, not just the mainstream. Toronto Free‑Net provides a home for those who cannot get Internet access on their own terms from commercial providers. Barriers come in many forms — financial, technical, social, etc. Free‑Net helps its members overcome many barriers they may face:
In all these cases, because Toronto Free‑Net employs volunteers and because its mission is not-for-profit, it is able to provide appropriate technology, Internet access, and support to all members of society on an equitable basis.
Free‑Nets are a focal point for people in communications technology.
Toronto Free‑Net provides a space in which technology professionals and hobbyists can play with and learn communication technologies. They practice their skills and, in the process, they provide dialup and high speed DSL Internet connections, technical support, and education to the community.
Free‑Net's technology infrastructure is a focal point around which all these people meet, find camaraderie and friendship, and help each other learn new things. The activity is made more meaningful by the fact that they are improving their community Internet provider.
Much of the work of running a freenet requires little or no knowledge of technology.
Non-technology volunteers at Toronto Free‑Net perform diverse tasks, such as process member payments, do Free‑Net's accounting, research suppliers and prices for products used or sold by Free‑Net, answer inquiries from the public, produce advertising materials, monitor CRTC hearings and prepare submissions for them, coordinate work, or just keep the office clean and organized!
(CRTC = the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which regulates the supply of Internet access services in Canada.)
By working with technology-focused volunteers at the Free‑Net office, other volunteers tend to learn more than the average person about the Internet and about computers. They also improve their people skills, gain confidence, and strengthen their sense of purpose by helping the community.
Aside from volunteering, there are many ways for members to participate actively in the Toronto Free‑Net community and to get to know each other.
Members can register their expertise in a subject, to be contacted by Free‑Net volunteers for advice, on an informal basis. They can sit on Free‑Net's board of directors or in a committee. They can also attend board meetings without taking on the responsibilities of a director.
Members are welcome to drop by the Free‑Net office to use its resources and to spend time with other members who visit the office.
Two annual events draw members out: the annual general meeting (AGM) and the nnual picnic.
The AGM is a business meeting at which Free‑Net members hear officer's reports and vote on issues. Also, before and after the meeting, there is time for members to get to know each other socially.
The summer picnic is a purely social gathering. It is a day-long potluck, held in a public park. Members bring food to share. They spend time enjoying each other's company and finding common interests. Conversation topics are never lacking, from current affairs, to gadgets, to anime. Of course, a perennial topic is the state of the Internet and what TFN is doing. The TFN picnic is well liked. People invariably stay late, well past the official ending time.
By choosing Toronto Free‑Net, you get excellent service while supporting universal Internet access across the GTA, all at a bargain price!