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THE BROAD VIEW

What if we paid for Facebook - instead of letting it spy on us for free?

A subscription Facebook would do more than just remove ads. It would liberate the social network from some perverse financial incentives.

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A smaller, paid Facebook might also be more aligned with us, its members. It would have to hustle, like Apple, Amazon and Netflix do, to make us think it's valuable.

LET'S play The Price is Right. What's a Facebook membership worth? US$7 per month? US$5? US$1? It's a trick question, because Facebook has always been free. But what if there was a way you could pay to remove the eerie targeted ads, stop it from tracking every little thing you do and make your data more secure?

Call it "Facebook Plus". Anyone peeved about the social network's recent privacy lapses might scoff at the idea of handing Facebook money. There's no indication that Facebook is ever going to charge, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg this week said he's focused on "a free service that everyone can use". But this spring's revelations about Cambridge Analytica, threats to democracy and data scraping at a global scale have offered a terrifying wake-up about the devil's bargain at the heart of Facebook: we don't pay for the product because we are the product.

So what if we flipped that on its head? As Mr Zuckerberg prepares for his date with Congress next week, I've been taking a fresh look at a modest proposal shared among techies for years: maybe we'd be better off paying for Facebook like a subscription than we are paying with our personal data - which, let's be honest, seems free but isn't. Might that restore our trust?

You can actually put a dollar figure on how much we're worth to the social network. Facebook collected US$82 in advertising for each member in North America last year. Across the world, it's about US$20 per member. Facebook is valued at US$450 billion because investors believe it will find even more ways to make money from collecting data on its two billion members.

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A few days ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook said Facebook's got it backward. Asked on MSNBC what he'd do if he were in Mr Zuckerberg's shoes, he said: "I wouldn't be in this situation." Consumers can pay for privacy, he said, and asserted that Apple makes better products because it sells them directly to consumers rather than selling users to advertisers.

Mr Zuckerberg responded via the website Vox that Cook's argument was "glib". He said: "If you want to build a service that helps connect everyone in the world, then there are a lot of people who can't afford to pay. And therefore, as with a lot of media, having an advertising-supported model is the only rational model that can support building this service to reach people."

But is advertising really the only way to make Facebook work? Putting aside for the moment whether or how a different model might come to be, imagining a subscription version can help us understand the current outrage - and weigh what kind of Facebook we really want. What would make it good enough to pay for?

A subscription Facebook would do more than just remove ads. It would liberate the social network from some perverse financial incentives. I phoned Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who called for an alternative business model back in 2014. He worked at one of the earliest ad-financed sites with user-generated content - and even helped birth the dreaded pop-up ad.

Today Mr Zuckerman calls advertising "the Internet's original sin". Facebook doesn't sell our data, but it uses it to sell marketers highly targeted access to us. These ads pay for billions of people to get information and have a voice online. But they also create an online world where surveillance is the norm and we're not fully in control of data about us.

And to compete, Facebook has to keep collecting data like a hungry hippo. It started with what we post on Facebook, but grew to include what you do when you surf the Web and use other apps. It even lets marketers marry their own data with what Facebook has in its dossier.

You don't have to condemn all advertising to think this tech goes too far. In 2016, Pew found by a margin of 51 per cent to 33 per cent that Americans don't think it is acceptable for a social media site to offer free access in exchange for a profile that's used to target ads. But the issues with ads go beyond the creep-out factor. They create an incentive for Facebook to gobble up not just our data, but also our attention, say critics like sociologist Zeynep Tufekci.

We've also learned that targeted ads can be democracy manipulation machines. Indictments brought by special counsel Robert Mueller claim that people linked to Russia's Internet Research Agency bought ads on Facebook to spread misinformation and influence voters. With a subscription business, Facebook wouldn't be locked in a perpetual cat-and-mouse game with bad advertisers, argued early Facebook investor Roger McNamee.

There's just one problem: who's going to pay for Facebook? "Free" is an easy sell; we overreact to it, and let it persuade us to ignore hidden costs. But over the years, surveys have found as few as 10 per cent of Americans would pay for Facebook.

Subscriptions have worked for some services. Netflix costs US$11 per month, and Amazon Prime is US$13 monthly, both higher than the US$7 per month Facebook would need to maintain its current North American revenue. But Facebook is a much, much larger service than almost anything else. And as Mr Zuckerberg said, a huge swathe of humanity simply couldn't afford to pay. Perhaps tiered subscriptions could help subsidise the poorest, but would we want privacy to become a luxury?

"Zuck may be right - if you really want a business model that works for a billion people, you're probably not going to get them all to pay for your product," MIT's Mr Zuckerman told me. "But one thing to ask is, does Facebook need a billion users?"

It's clear why advertisers want the largest-possible Facebook. It's clear what Mr Zuckerberg gets: he's ruler of the world's largest community. But maybe we'd be better served by a series of social networks with different geographic and product focuses and that can interoperate. One Facebook to rule them all isn't the only way to connect humanity.

A smaller, paid Facebook might also be more aligned with us, its members. It would have to hustle, like Apple, Amazon and Netflix do, to make us think it's valuable. Mr Zuckerberg disagrees with the assertion that not charging for a product means Facebook isn't aligned with us. "That doesn't mean that we're not primarily focused on serving people," he told Vox. "I think probably to the dissatisfaction of our sales team here, I make all of our decisions based on what's going to matter to our community."

No doubt investors would be unhappy if Facebook became a subscription business: its main upside would be adding new members, and Facebook is starting to run out of humans.

But the challenge Apple's Mr Cook made to Mr Zuckerberg reveals a deep gulf between the Facebook we use because it is free and the Facebook would be worth paying for. A paid Facebook could be a better Facebook product - and one that's more likely to survive a reckoning with members or governments. WP