If You Want Privacy on Facebook, You Should Pay for It

Not surprisingly, Facebook's half-hearted attempts to kick its data-sharing addiction have not exactly wowed the privacy cognoscenti. Last week a consortium of groups -- including the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse -- wrote an open letter to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg [PDF] saying essentially what I (and many others) also said after FB's nominal response to the recent privacy uproar: Nice start, but... not enough by half, at least.

Facebook's response? Suck on it, you privacy pantywaists. We're done listening to you.

OK, that's not what they said literally, but that's the subtext of their letter, a copy of which you can find on Scribd.

Jeff Tinsley, CEO of MyLife.com, has another idea: If you really want Facebook to protect your privacy, you should pay them for the privilege. No, he's serious. And he's got a good point.

The idea is simple: If you're a paying customer, Facebook doesn't need to monetize your data so heavily via ad deals. That means it has less incentive to butter your data all over the InterWebs and more incentive to keep its paying customers (ie, you) happy.

“When you're solely reliant on ad revenue, that puts you in conflict with your users," he says. "To maximize revenue in a business with an advertising model you need to use the information you collect from your users to better target them. Advertisers are demanding the use of that information, which could put Facebook under pressure to collect and expose more and more of its users' information, especially if it goes public.”

Fact is, pay sites are more and more common. MyLife (formerly Reunion.com), has been charging users an average of $9 a month and providing a lot less than what Facebook offers its users each month for free. Tinsley's site has almost completely dropped ads as a revenue stream. And he's got nearly a million paying customers to show for it.

Like ZoomInfo, Pipl, and a dozen others, MyLife is a people search engine; its particular niche is that it also tells you who's been searching for you. Looking for that long-lost high school hottie? MyLife can help you find him/her or tell you if he/she has been looking for you. (That's the idea anyway; more on how MyLife actually works in a future post.)

A subscription plan might also give Facebook reasons to provide better customer support. As it is, good luck reaching a human when you have a problem with your Facebook account. The best you can do is send an email to a generic email address and hope somebody gets back to you.

That's not unusual when a service is 100 percent free. Tech support is expensive. But if you paid, say, $5 a month, Facebook might have the funds (and the need) to put more bodies on that problem.

Tinsley isn't advocating a complete paywall for Facebook, but a "freemium" model -- so you might get status updates and Wall posts for free, but if you want to play Farmville or take quizzes it'll cost you. Or maybe Facebook could limit on the number of friends you can claim, updates you can post, etc., for free. The number and types of free/pay models is virtually endless.

Does the idea of paying for Facebook strike you as insane? It shouldn't. As Rob Enderle, principal analyst with The Enderle Group notes, one way or another you end up paying for "free" services like Facebook.

“If you don't know what's funding your service, there's a good chance your information is,” he says. “You're a lot safer if you know the fee structure of the service. If you've got a choice between a nominally priced service and a free one, you're taking less of a risk with the fee-based one.”

Would you be willing to pay for Facebook? And if so, for what and how much? Post your thoughts below or write to me at dan(at)dantynan(dot)com. I might share your thoughts in a future blog post (with your permission, of course).

ITworld blogger Dan Tynan would pay other Facebook users to stop playing Farmville/Petville/FrontierVille etc -- or at least, quit publishing how many damned sheep they now own. Catch his brand of juvenile-infused humor at eSarcasm and follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech.

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