Meta to Offer Ad-Free Subscription in Europe in Bid to Keep Tracking Other Users

Meta to Offer Ad-Free Subscription in Europe in Bid to Keep Tracking Other Users – Meta has confirmed its plans to introduce ad-free subscription versions of Facebook and Instagram in the European Union, EEA, and Switzerland, in response to legal challenges related to user privacy. Starting next month, users will have the option to subscribe to these ad-free versions, as per Meta’s official announcement.

This decision comes after years of legal disputes and court rulings in the EU, which have restricted Meta’s ability to track and profile users for targeted advertising without their freely given consent. While Meta has stated its intention to transition to a consent-based model, its proposed subscription approach, where users can choose to pay for privacy, has sparked criticism.

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According to Meta’s blog post, the subscription fee for ad-free access will be €9.99 per month for web users and €12.99 per month for iOS or Android users, per linked Facebook and Instagram accounts within their Accounts Center. Starting from March 1, 2024, an additional fee of €6 per month on web and €8 per month on iOS or Android will apply for each additional account in a user’s Account Center.

For users with multiple accounts on Meta’s platforms, the cost of maintaining privacy from tracking and profiling could add up significantly. Even for users with a single account on Facebook or Instagram, the annual cost for protecting their privacy from Meta’s practices would be approximately €120 for web usage and slightly over €155 for mobile usage.

Meta is relying on a line in a ruling handed down by the bloc’s top court, the CJEU — where the judges allowed the possibility — caveated with “if necessary” — of an (another caveat) “appropriate fee” being charged for an equivalent alternative service (i.e. that lacks tracking and profiling). So the legal fight against Meta’s continued tracking and profiling of users will hinge on what’s necessary and appropriate in this context.

In a press release earlier this month after the WSJ reported Meta plans to charge users for their privacy, noyb’s founder and honorary chairman, Max Schrems, wrote: “The CJEU said that the alternative to ads must be ‘necessary’ and the fee must be ‘appropriate’. I don’t think €160 a year is what they had in mind. These six words are also an ‘obiter dictum’, a non-binding element that went beyond the core case before the CJEU. For Meta this is not the most stable case law and we will clearly fight against such an approach.”

Meta’s decision to introduce a subscription option for users or continue tracking them has not yet received approval from data protection authorities. It’s evident that further regulatory actions may be taken. For example, the Norwegian Data Protection Authority (DPA), which has already issued a local ban on Meta’s tracking ads, has expressed concerns about the subscription plan, casting doubt on whether it would meet the criteria for valid consent.

In addition to adhering to the GDPR’s requirements for lawful consent (such as specificity, informativeness, and voluntariness), Meta is now subject to the pan-European Digital Services Act (DSA), which imposes conditions on larger platforms regarding tracking and profiling for advertising purposes. Thus, the decision on whether Meta’s subscription or tracking offering complies with regulations won’t be made solely by data protection authorities. 

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The European Commission is responsible for overseeing compliance with the DSA for very large online platforms. Furthermore, Meta has been designated as a “gatekeeper” under the DSA’s counterpart regulation, the Digital Markets Act (DMA), which places limitations on the use of people’s data for advertising. 

The Commission is the sole enforcer of the DMA. Meta is already under scrutiny by the Commission for its approach to the DSA in other areas, such as content threats related to the Israel-Hamas conflict and election security matters. However, it remains to be seen whether the EU will apply the same level of scrutiny to Meta’s ad tracking offer.

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