Unless you're one of the few people I've ever met who never signed up for a Facebook account, the message you saw when you visited the homepage for the first time was simple. "It's free and always will be," Facebook has said for over a decade. 

But now that has changed. Business Insider first reported on Tuesday that on August 7th, the company made what seems like a very small change. Instead of the part about it being free, Facebook's homepage now says "It's quick and easy."

That might seem like just a few words, but in reality, it's a pretty big difference. Companies don't make changes like this without a reason. While it's not entirely clear what the reason is, the fact that Facebook is no longer touting its service as free could mean one of several things, none of them especially good. I reached out to Facebook for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.

You see, 'free' has been Facebook's public mantra time and time again. It sounds really nice. Facebook has made this amazing thing for us, and it is even going to let us use it for free. Except it isn't.

It's not free if it costs this much.

Facebook has never been free. The fact that the company has never charged a monthly fee is irrelevant. Instead, the company simply monetized you. I mean, in a lot of ways, if you get past the fact that it's so creepy, it's actually quite brilliant and terribly profitable.

Still, Facebook has frequently made a point of publicly stating that its goal is to keep the product free and accessible to all, which is why it depends on ads for revenue. That has been its fall back when challenged over the privacy blunders that users were expected to tolerate-- because it's free.

Now, Facebook is apparently making less of a big deal that it's free by removing the words from the homepage. Of course, Facebook could simply be acknowledging that there is a price for using its service. That price is access to your personal information in an intimate way so that the company can serve up highly targeted digital advertisements.

In some ways, maybe it's a good thing that Facebook has finally acknowledged this. Except, the pretense that the service was free at least caused Facebook to pretend that it was concerned about the interests of its users.

Facebook could charge a monthly fee.

Now, that pretense is gone. Facebook no longer even claims the service will always be free, which means it very well may take more steps that reinforce its business model. If it stops claiming the service is free, it's no longer obligated to hide the fact that it makes massive amounts of cash from its users.

There's also the possibility that the company might actually start charging for the service or at least offer the opportunity for an ad-free experience at a cost. By eliminating the part about "and always will be," it seems to be opening the door to the possibility that it may charge a monthly or annual fee in the future--something the company has admitted it has considered in the past.

I guess that might not be a terrible idea, but the question is, what would you pay for Facebook? 

And, if you pay for Facebook in exchange for them not using your personal information to show you ads, isn't that sort of like mob pressuring you for protection money in exchange for not letting anyone break into your store? "Hey, we won't monetize your most intimate personal information if you pay us this money every month." 

Actually, the more I think about it, I doubt Facebook will bother charging-- it's far more lucrative for the company to just sell you off to the highest bidder.

Published on: Aug 29, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.