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“It’s free and always will be”, this is the prominent statement on Facebook homepage that you will find today if you visit the social network. The free promise and statement by Facebook on its homepage may need to be updated based on recent statement by Mark Zuckerberg.

In his address to the US Congress he indicated that there will always be a “version” of Facebook that is free. In saying this he implied that another version (paid) may be considered.

The idea of paying for Facebook is probably the better option to just using Facebook for free in exchange for user data. A paid version of Facebook makes sense if society wants to avoid  the recent developments around using user data without permission during the US elections by Cambridge Analytica. The reality is that services such as Facebook, Google, Twitter and others depend on offering us free service in exchange for access to our data and monetising it. As society we have two options, free or paid version. 

Currently, Facebook users don’t pay when  downloading it, and  don’t pay to use it as well. The Free Facebook is possible because Facebook serves users advertising when they log on. Companies tell Facebook who they want to advertise to. Then Facebook will charge those companies a fee, and show you their ads based on your personal data.

Facebook theoretically “doesn’t” sell user data to other companies. It simply asks those other companies who they want to target, and then does it for them.

The paid version of Facebook or any other free online service would mean zero ads and no access to your data by third parties. One researcher recently conducted a pilot experiment to obtain some preliminary answers on this matter.

The researcher asked the participants the following question: How much would you be willing to pay, at most, per month?” He also asked 200 other Facebook users a different question: “Suppose that you are being offered money to stop using Facebook.  How much would you have to be paid per month, at a minimum, to make it worth your while to stop using Facebook?”

These two questions should produce the same answers. But they did not. For the first question, the median answer was just $1 per month. The average was $7.38. Nearly half of participants (46 percent) said that they would pay $0 if Facebook tried to charge them a fee.

For the second question, the median answer was a whopping $59 per month. The average amount people would demand to leave Facebook was $74.99. What does this mean? It gives us an indication that some people are not prepared to pay to use the tool partly because they’ve been used to get it for free.

The issue of paying or not paying for online services such as Facebook is very important. It goes beyond just social media but the online media industry across the board.

Online users assume that there’s no cost to using these services for free. The reality is that there’s a high cost to using these services for free, especially for society at large hence the need to pay attention to this matter.

Using these services for free creates an abusive relationship between the provider of the service and the user. This situation should no longer be allowed. When users pay for a service they have more power and are less abused. When users pay, a respectful relationship occurs between the user and the provider of the services particularly for online services.

There’s also a case for online services to charge for their services to avoid the temptation to harm their users by enabling access to their data without permission. There’s also a case for online media companies to charge for their services to avoid temptation to accept money from donors with ulterior motives.

Companies such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms should start considering giving their users an option to pay for their services. The same goes for online media entities. A paid version should be considered for more quality information in order to save the online media industry from just relying on advertising industry for survival.

Wesley Diphoko is the founder of Kaya Labs. He serves as the chairperson of the IEEE Open Data Initiative (Industry Connections programme) in South Africa. Follow him on Twitter for more insights on the Information Economy: @WesleyDiphoko.

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