We had only about 30 minutes on the phone with Mr. Zuckerberg, but we managed to get him to address several important topics: the Cambridge Analytica mess, Facebook’s lax data policies, its plans to clamp down on third-party developer access and notify users whose data was misused, election interference (including previously unreported Macedonian attempts to interfere in last year’s Alabama special election) and Facebook’s broader responsibility as a global power.
But Mr. Zuckerberg’s responses also raised more questions.
Here, for example, is how he answered a question about Facebook’s business model, which is based on selling advertisers and developers the ability to target Facebook users based on their personal data.
Roose: Is the basic economic model of Facebook, in which users provide data that Facebook uses to help advertisers and developers to better target potential customers and users — do you feel like that works, given what we now know about the risks?
Zuckerberg: Yeah, so this is a really important question. The thing about the ad model that is really important that aligns with our mission is that — our mission is to build a community for everyone in the world and to bring the world closer together. And a really important part of that is making a service that people can afford. A lot of the people, once you get past the first billion people, can’t afford to pay a lot. Therefore, having it be free and have a business model that is ad-supported ends up being really important and aligned.
Now, over time, might there be ways for people who can afford it to pay a different way? That’s certainly something we’ve thought about over time. But I don’t think the ad model is going to go away, because I think fundamentally, it’s important to have a service like this that everyone in the world can use, and the only way to do that is to have it be very cheap or free.
Narrowly, it may be true that being free and ad supported helps Facebook achieve its goals of connecting billions of people to its services. Facebook has developed a number of ways to make itself cheaper and easier to access — including, in some countries, effectively subsidizing use through its Free Basics program, which allows people to use Facebook without its counting toward their data plans.
But it’s not clear this approach has served society well. Especially in countries like Myanmar, where Facebook was recently blamed by United Nation investigators for fueling ethnic violence against the Rohingya, it’s possible that having a slightly higher barrier to entry would be a net good, even if it cost Facebook some users in the short term. (And it’s not even clear that it would. People already pay for their cellphones and data plans all over the world, and might be willing to part with a small fee to keep using their favorite social network.)
Switching to a subscription model wouldn’t fix all of Facebook’s problems overnight. There would still be foreign actors trying to interfere in elections, false news and divisive content intending to sway public opinion, and innumerable other issues. But moving away from an ad-supported model would make the network harder to exploit. (Bot networks are less effective on subscription platforms, for example.) And it would lessen the company’s incentive to sell out its users’ privacy to advertisers.