Is Facebook's Problem The Fact That It's Free?

Apr 10, 2018

Fake news on Facebook didn’t start with the 2016 election. Nearly a decade ago, users posted dire warnings that the network was about to start charging users.

It wasn’t true. But would it have been so bad?

Instead of charging users, Facebook made its money by selling ads targeted to them. It enforces the old saying about the web that if you aren’t a customer, then you’re the product.

Now the Cambridge Analytica controversy has revealed just how easily user data can be accessed and misused. It has a lot of people feeling violated, and wondering if they can be paying customers instead.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg says total privacy on the network would require users to pay, though they’re not considering offering that option.

Facebook’s business model isn’t unique. Much of the internet runs on ad money. And broadcast television and radio worked this way for years, though without gathering nearly as much data. If there aren’t any better options to keep our personal information out of untrustworthy hands, is privacy something to pay for?


Kathy Pham, Fellow, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society; former program manager for Google Search; @kathytpham

Luke Stark, Postdoctoral fellow, Dartmouth College Department of Sociology; @luke_stark

Geoffrey Fowler, Technology columnist, The Washington Post; @geoffreyfowler

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