A patent filing suggests that Facebook could one day charge for an ad-free version of its site complete with extra premium features.
In a filing entitled "Paid Profile Personalization" and dated July 27, 2011, Facebook details how users who paid a monthly subscription could chose "to replace advertisements or other elements that are normally displayed to visitors of the user's profile page that are otherwise controlled by the social networking system. In particular embodiments, the user may edit elements on their profile page that are otherwise automatically generated and controlled in design and content by the social networking system. In particular embodiments, the user is billed on a recurring basis for profile personalization."
Before teenaged Facebook users in particular start panicking, it is worth highlighting that just because a patent is filed, or even granted, it may have no bearing on a company's future direction. Patents are simply a means of safeguarding a potential future direction and, in the case of Apple, to stop others from piggy-backing on their designs or product features.
However, at the same time, Facebook is no longer a small word-of-mouth website that people stumble upon. It currently has 1.01 billion users and is a publically listed company. And once a company is on the stock exchange, it has an obligation to make money for its shareholders.
Amazon has toyed with the freemium business model for a number of years. Kindle Fire owners can pay a premium at the time of purchase to eradicate ads from their web browsing, while Amazon Prime customers pay a yearly fee to guarantee next-day delivery and benefit from a number of multimedia services such as free video streaming and book borrowing.
The researchers claim that changes to page layout and to default settings may have led users to think something they posted or shared was private when in fact it was public.
"These findings highlight the tension between privacy choices as expressions of individual subjective preferences, and the role of the network environment in shaping those choices," said Alessandro Acquisti, one of the researchers. "While people try to take control of their personal information, the network keeps changing, affecting their decisions and changing their privacy outcomes."
With this in mind, perhaps charging users a monthly subscription in return for guaranteed privacy could prove to be an ingenious way of increasing revenues.