While testifying in front of Congress on Tuesday, Mark Zuckerberg hinted a paid version of Facebook may be on the horizon. The founder and CEO of the social network didn't explicitly say that a premium version of the website is on the horizon, or even confirm that Facebook is considering it. But one comment he made during his testimony suggests that the company may be moving in that direction.
"There will always be a version of Facebook that is free," Zuckerberg said when Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch asked him if the service he created will always be free to use.
The phrasing of that remark strongly implies that it's at least possible that there will at some point be a version of Facebook that isn't free. Many speculated that this hypothetical paid version of Facebook would be ad-free, given that Zuckerberg was discussing the importance of advertising in Facebook's business model when he made the comment.
Of course, this is all complete speculation. Zuckerberg made a throwaway comment that didn't close the door to the possibility of a paid version of Facebook — but that's about all he did. Zuckerberg made no official announcements, and didn't even confirm that the company is looking at the possibility of a premium version. He simply hinted obliquely at the possibility.
The idea of a paid, ad-free version of Facebook has been floated in the past. In 2013, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone proposed that Facebook adopt such a business model — not as a means of protecting users' data, but as a means of making more money.
"I’ve got an idea for Facebook," Stone wrote in a Medium post. "They could offer Facebook Premium. For $10 a month, people who really love Facebook (and can afford it), could see no ads. Maybe some special features too. If 10% percent of Facebook signed up, that’s $1B a month in revenue."
Moreover, a rumor circulated in 2009 (and several times since) that Facebook was going to start charging users to access the website. Needless to say, that never happened.
Not everybody is sold on the idea of a premium version of Facebook, however. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak told USA TODAY on Wednesday that he doesn't think users would pony up the extra cash for an ad-free Facebook experience.
"You would say, 'I’m really paying $1,000 a year for this Facebook service when I can do email and other sites?'" Wozniak hypothesized. "There’s a lot of ways to be in contact with people." He added that an ad-free version would provide "one little level of guarantee and privacy," but probably wouldn't alleviate all of users' concerns about how their data is used and shared.
It's worth noting, however, that an ad-free version of Facebook wouldn't necessarily have prevented the scandal that prompted Zukerberg's congressional testimony. Lawmakers summoned Zuckerberg for questioning after it was revealed that a conservative research firm called Cambridge Analytica had harvested personal data from up to 87 million Facebook users. But this wasn't really an ad-related scandal; rather, Cambridge Analytical obtained this user data through a Facebook app that users voluntarily granted access to their account.
As it turns out, users who authorized that app were also granting it access to their friends' personal data, which is how Cambridge Analytica was able to get information about so many people. But although Donald Trump's presidential campaign later used this data to buy targeted ads during the election, Facebook ads had nothing to do with the actual collection of that data.
It's an important reminder that, although an ad-free version of Facebook might be nice, it wouldn't immediately protect users against data breaches. It might just make Facebook more money.