When free isn’t free

It’s very trendy in France to pepper advertising and marketing with English words, especially when naming things. Here, for example, is a promotion from Hygena fitted kitchens called, in French, “Kitchen Weeks.”

How French

As amusing and/or grating as this can be on the ears of English speakers, and overlooking for a moment the way it gives some folks an overinflated sense of their command of English, few people think much about what happens when the borrowed words shift context.

Let me explain.

One of France’s leading telecos is a company named Free. It has equipped millions of homes with WiFi broadband routers. These routers are configured to let other Free subscribers connect wirelessly to the Internet. Imagine you have a laptop and Free broadband at home. If you take your laptop on vacation and find yourself within range of someone’s Free router, you can connect to the Net…for free.

Not a bad idea. Now imagine you are a foreign tourist desperately seeking to connect to the Internet. Your computer/smartphone tells you that there is FreeWiFi near you. There’s no padlock, so you connect, but it doesn’t work.

Wouldn't you click on it?

This happens daily throughout France. Now, the other telcos have similar systems, but their SSIDs are clearer.

You’d be surprised just how often FreeWiFi comes up in discussion. In one way or another, everyone says: “FreeWiFi, WTF?” And it’s not limited for foreigners. Even some French people don’t make the connection between the network name and the teleco.

I’ll bet thousands of people leave France every day, puzzled and a bit miffed. They go home saying “Nice city, but FreeWiFi in Paris is a scam.”

Here’s a suggestion to the people at Free: clarify your SSID, slap a padlock on it, or at least put a message in English on your log-in screen.

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