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Feb. 21, 2023, 2:46 p.m.
Audience & Social

For the tech giants, security is increasingly a paid feature

Identity verification on social platforms used to be a matter of trust and safety. Now for Twitter and Facebook, it’s a new line of revenue.

For more than a decade, the conventional wisdom has been that a social platform needs to be free to its users to succeed. It’s a two-sided network problem: Social networks need a critical mass of users to be of much value to anyone. And that user base has to be big enough to attract advertisers’ attention. Any sort of paywall gets in the way of the scale required to create a revenue megalith like Facebook.

Elon Musk, as he is wont to do, challenged that conventional wisdom when he made Twitter’s blue “Verified” check — previously evidence of actual verification — into a paid product. Verification was initially intended as a confirmation of identity, the sort of small mark that makes a platform sliiightly more trustworthy and secure. But it became some weird marker of status to some of the internet’s worst people, and so it became an $8 SKU.

This conversion — this shift from a “Trust and Safety” feature to a consumer product — had the results everyone predicted, a rash of impersonations, brand danger, and other malfeasance.

But last week, Musk-era Twitter went a step further and said only $8/month customers will be allowed to use SMS for two-factor authentication — a basic layer of security frequently used by journalists, celebrities, officials, and others who fear being hacked. The company tried to explain it as a matter of security (“we have seen phone-number based 2FA be used — and abused — by bad actors”) — but apparently the threat is only to non-paying customers, since Twitter Blue subscribers can keep on using it forever. There will be other ways to use 2FA for Twitter, but they’re not available worldwide and are not without their own risks.

Basic security features going behind a paywall — not good. So it was even less encouraging to see Facebook follow Musk-era Twitter’s lead:

Meta’s testing paid verification for Instagram and Facebook for $11.99 per month on web and $14.99 per month on mobile. In an update on Instagram, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that a “Meta Verified” account will grant users a verified badge, increased visibility on the platforms, prioritized customer support, and more. The feature’s rolling out to Australia and New Zealand this week and will arrive in more countries “soon.”

“This week we’re starting to roll out Meta Verified — a subscription service that lets you verify your account with a government ID, get a blue badge, get extra impersonation protection against accounts claiming to be you, and get direct access to customer support,” Zuckerberg writes. “This new feature is about increasing authenticity and security across our services.”

On Facebook, Zuckerberg engaged in some limited back-and-forth with users over the change. (“Call me crazy but I don’t think I should have to pay you guys to take down the accounts impersonating me and scamming my followers.” “This really should just be part of the core product, the user should not have to pay for this. Clearly it’s known by Meta this is filling a need, why profit additionally from it?”)

One user argues that “direct access to customer support is the real value, much more so than the blue check mark.” Zuckerberg: “I agree that’s a big part of the value.” And indeed, a hotline to Facebook customer service is likely the most valuable piece of the package here. But it doesn’t feel good to see features like identity verification — basic stuff for running a trustworthy platform — put behind a paywall.

For Twitter, there’s a certain mad sense to the move. Elon Musk has set the company on fire, from a cashflow perspective, and he’s desperate for all the user revenue he can generate. If 63% of your best advertisers drop you, you grab at whatever dollar bills you see floating by. (Not many seem to be floating Elon’s way.)

Facebook, meanwhile, is still pulling in more than $30 billion a quarter in ad revenue. But various headwinds, whether economic or Cupertino-driven, have demanded a “year of efficiency,” which includes chasing money from users too.

We’re seeing an addendum to that old conventional wisdom about social networks. You can’t charge most of your users — but you can charge some. Few would be bothered by a subscription product that offered additional features — ad-free browsing, say, or custom icons, like the old Twitter Blue. But it’s sad to watch basic security features put behind a credit card charge.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Feb. 21, 2023, 2:46 p.m.
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