Many of us pay a monthly or annual fee for Netflix, Spotify, Amazon Prime and other online services. So why not pay for Facebook?
The concept is resurfacing amid the scandal over the misuse of data from more than 50 million Facebook users by the Cambridge Analytica research firm.
It’s worth a serious look, says Ryan Calo, associate professor at the University of Washington School of Law and co-director of the UW’s Tech Policy Lab, who has floated the idea of a premium Facebook option in the past. Making money from users, rather than from advertisers, could reduce or eliminate the temptation for the social network to push the envelope by oversharing user data for purposes of targeted marketing.
Ultimately, the challenge is that Facebook’s current business model is built on monetizing personal information.
“I don’t know how much you can reconcile that business model with truly putting the consumer and the consumer’s privacy and autonomy in front,” said Calo in an interview with GeekWire this morning.
Calo has argued in the past that Facebook should experiment with a paid option, such as $1/month, but said he has gotten pushback from people who cite the potential to expose financial data or exacerbate the digital divide by excluding users who couldn’t afford to pay for the service.
“I understand that,” he said. “But my basic point is that ultimately something needs to change structurally as to the incentives of these firms, or this tension is going to play out indefinitely.”
An analysis this week by Chris Wilson, director of data journalism for Time.com, concluded that an average subscription price of $75/year per user could allow Facebook to cover operating costs and generate “a healthy profit.”
Alternatively, do Facebook’s current problems create an opening for another company to challenge the social networking giant with a competing paid service? Facebook has more than 2.2 billion monthly active users, which would make that a Herculean task. And that’s only one of the challenges.
“There are a number of impediments to competing with Facebook, not the least of which is that Facebook will buy competitors,” Calo said, citing the irony of WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton supporting the ‘DeleteFacebook’ campaign after selling the messaging platform to Facebook for $22 billion in 2014.
Ultimately, Calo said, “It’s not that Facebook is bad … but rather that perhaps we were too hasty to completely mediate all of our interactions with each other. Maybe the wave of, ‘Let’s digitize every aspect our live; let’s make sure we communicate only through an intermediary,’ perhaps that wave is receding. And Facebook is bearing the brunt of it because, of course, Facebook is at the heart of it.”
Listen for our full conversation with Calo on the next episode of GeekWire’s Week in Geek podcast.