There are terrible words about to be posted on this page, but don’t turn away yet. There’s a reason that some radical ideas need to be said even if they’re never going to happen.
Facebook should offer a premium service. The free social network is the king of the sharing world, holding the attention of a billion people on at least a monthly basis. Millions have Facebook connected to their phones and check every little beep or vibration that it pushes to their device. They have plenty of revenue coming in, a bright future in the world of personal data collection, and a thriving stock. Why would they want to offer a premium service?
The answer to that question has less to do with money (though they would make a lot) and more to do with the upcoming battles they’re going to have to face from either their users, various governments of the world, or both. Right now, everyone is focused on Edward Snowden and the actions of the NSA when it comes to privacy, but eventually that will come to a conclusion of some sort. When that time comes, people, activists, the media, and governments will start looking for the next in line to tie down and beat up over privacy and Facebook is the most likely candidate (though Google is up there as well).
With their current revenue model, they have only two things going for them: eyeballs and demographic data. Even though they’re limited to these two, they’re still huge components of their revenue and are both unique; they have the 2nd highest eyeball share when it comes to time spent on their site, right behind YouTube, and they have the best demographic data available to advertisers. It’s a powerful combination, but if (when) they’re targeted for privacy again, they will need to defend the second component in order to maintain the first component as well as their revenue stream.
A premium service can prepare them for two things. It gives them a hedge in case of catastrophic government action and it gives them an out when it comes to privacy. The service could work like this: for $X per month, they can go “ads-free”, eliminating both the sidebar advertisements as well as the sponsored posts that appear in the news feed. For another $Y per month, they could go “data-free”, meaning that their personal data is not a part of the database. They won’t be tracked onto every page that has a Facebook widget. They won’t have their data accessible in any way by any other company or even humans at the company. All of the personal data could be erased completely. The thought that this data is necessary to maintain the sanctity of the network (in other words, to prove you’re human) would be unnecessary as the credit card payment should be plenty of proof.
It would be a win-win for the company as long as they planned it properly. They would have to be prepared to downplay the action to advertisers if the premium service did not achieve high numbers, keeping them at bay with the knowledge that the vast majority did not sign up for the premium service. If enough sign up, the exodus of advertisers would still likely be minimal, but even a larger exodus would be acceptable if $X and $Y were lucrative enough. I don’t know whether that’s $1/mo, $10/mo, or some other amount, but that’s where the planning would come in.
Again, this is to give them a defensible position in case something bad happens to them in the future. They’ve had privacy concerns in the pre-Snowden era. Once the NSA and other government agencies are corrected, the next round of attacks on Facebook’s unwillingness to protect privacy because of their addiction to the data they collect leaves them vulnerable. They don’t have to be. A premium service would give users choices that they simply do not have today. With choice comes a lower level of accountability to the privacy advocates, journalists, and politicians.
This is an issue that they need to address. It’s not going to go away. Thanks to Edward Snowden, they will not be able to weather privacy issues the way they’ve done it in the past. The only way they can be prepared for it while maintaining their revenue stream is to start offering a premium service. Otherwise, they could be in big trouble in a year or two.