Facebook and Instagram ad-free for those who pay: creative with the law?

Facebook and Instagram ad-free for those who pay: creative with the law?

Meta offers a subscription for European users to make Facebook and Instagram ad-free. In this way, the social media company aims to comply with EU requirements on consent to display personalized advertising.

Within the European Union, Meta is launching a subscription to make Facebook and Instagram ad-free. Previous rumours of a paid service at Meta are thus confirmed. These rumours surfaced after the social media conglomerate decided to ask permission from EU users to collect personalized advertising. In doing so, the company did not admit it has been malpractising in obtaining personal data from Meta users since the start, but the change followed EU demand.

The subscriptions cost, according to Meta’s blog, ten euros a month for web users and thirteen euros a month for iOS and Android users per linked Facebook and Instagram account to a user’s Account Center. After March 1, 2024, a cost of six euros per month on the web and eight euros per month for mobile will be added for each account in addition to the main account. The formulas will be available from November 2023.

Meta manages to bend European laws in an interesting way to the issue of paying with your wallet or privacy. By offering pay as the only option to get out from under personalized ads, Meta puts the concept of voluntary consent back in a different perspective.

Will Norway be heard?

At the same time, Meta has another feud going on with Norway. That country’s authorities are trying to agree with the EU to definitively ban data collection for Facebook. Norway is not part of the European Union, so the daily fine of €89,000 for Facebook did not extend into EU countries. This fine applies as long as the platform fails to ask users’ permission for data collection practices for targeted ads.

The EU previously condemned this privacy violation. The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled in July that Meta unlawfully displays personalized advertising to its users. The ruling gave European authorities expanded powers over data collection by tech companies. But there was nothing to celebrate for Meta, as the company lost its legal basis for collecting personal information from users. In particular, authorities opposed the practice of collecting sensitive information such as race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.

Tip: Meta can no longer collect user data while antitrust authorities win

In August, the social media conglomerate seemed to have come to reason. Meta would adjust its policy around personalized advertising for users in the EU, EEA (European Economic Area) and Switzerland. Yesterday, that adjustment was updated, and the company will no longer collect data from users who pay for Meta’s services.

Norway disagreed with Meta’s practices all along and decided to go to the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) early this month in an attempt to extend the ban to the entire EU. That demand has not yet been met. The social media conglomerate previously reacted with outrage over Norway’s actions by citing it was making policy adjustments to comply with the legal basis. However, Meta’s change of direction may once again cause discussion among lawmakers or shine a new light on Norway’s demand.

Authorities’ response

The CJEU decision already referred to the fact that it is permissible to charge a fee for not tracking a user. The fee must only be necessary, and a legitimate amount must be proposed. For necessity, Meta can refer to its revenue model that runs primarily on advertising revenue. However, the authorities must decide whether the amount requested is appropriate. The cost per month is not minus, and as of March 2024, the costs run high for those with multiple Facebook and Instagram accounts.

The Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) has already responded to TechCrunch. The authority claims to have been informed about Meta’s paid subscriptions as early as late July. At that time, the paid formula was only supposed to take effect in February 2024. This date has been brought forward at the request of the authorities so that Meta can again show targeted ads to users on a legal basis.

“In consultation with its fellow European supervisory authorities, the DPC has been involved in a detailed review of the permission-based model since it was first proposed by Meta in July. This exercise is being led by the DPC and reflects its position as the leading supervisory authority for Facebook and Instagram in Europe. The exercise is not yet complete and no findings have been made so far. It will be completed shortly, after which the DPC will notify Meta if it considers that the way its new user offerings are to be implemented is compatible with Meta’s obligations under the GDPR.”

First test for DSA?

At the same time, data collection practices regarding sensitive information are already being addressed within the Digital Services Act (DSA). This is a set of European rules designed to guarantee European users a secure online environment. Within the legislation, among other things, it is no longer allowed to determine target groups based on personal data such as sexual orientation and political preferences. Every personalized ad you see must also indicate which factor determines that you see it.

Through the DSA, Europe can levy fines of up to six percent of the annual revenue generated by the offending company. This legislation is currently already in place for 19 comprehensive platforms and search engines, including Meta.

Consequently, within the free subscription, it is no longer allowed to collect the data that caused the major problem between European authorities and Meta in the first place. Only if the free subscription decides to ignore this legislation then a fine through the DSA will soon have to follow. This could put the DSA on its first trial run. The legislation is brand new, so it remains equally possible that by offering a paid subscription, Meta has found a way through which targeted advertising practices remain possible for those who do not buy off their privacy.

Moreover, minors always seem to be at a disadvantage in Meta’s new advertising policy. They cannot purchase the subscription and, therefore, may always remain the subject of targeted ads. In theory, the DSA should provide a solution for this vulnerable group. Meta says the following about it: “We continue to explore how to provide teens with a useful and responsible ad experience, given the changing regulatory landscape.”