Wed. Apr 17th, 2024

Backlash over Meta’s ad-free subscription model in the European Union has begun just one month into its launch.

On Thursday, Europe’s largest consumer group, the European Consumer Organization (BEUC), filed a complaint with the network of consumer protection authorities. In a press release, BEUC alleges that Meta’s subscription fees for ad-free access to Facebook and Instagram are so unreasonably high that they breach laws designed to protect user privacy as a fundamental right.

“Meta has been rolling out changes to its service in the EU in November 2023, which require Facebook and Instagram users to either consent to the processing of their data for advertising purposes by the company or pay in order not to be shown advertisements,” BEUC’s press release said. “The tech giant’s pay-or-consent approach is unfair and must be stopped.”

On October 30, Meta announced it would begin offering people in the EU, the European Economic Area, and Switzerland a choice between paying a subscription fee to opt out of any personalized advertising or consenting to ad targeting to continue accessing Facebook and Instagram for free.

The fee on Facebook costs 9.99 euros/month on the web or 12.99 euros/month on iOS and Android, which currently covers linked Instagram accounts. However, starting March 1, 2024, costs will go up. After that date, linking your Instagram or additional Meta accounts to your subscription will cost an extra 6 euros/month on the web and 8 euros/month on iOS and Android.

Meta said that it made this change after a July ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) that “recognized that a subscription model, like the one we are announcing, is a valid form of consent for an ads-funded service.”

That CJEU ruling specifically said that “users must have the freedom to individually refuse consent to certain data processing operations… without being forced to completely waive the use of the service,” and requires that users “are offered an equivalent alternative” to consenting to data collection, “if necessary for a reasonable fee.”

The major question Meta faces now is deciding whether its subscription prices are reasonable or, as BEUC has alleged, “very high.” BEUC argued that because many users will likely consent to unwanted data collection just to avoid a high fee, Meta is only allegedly giving the illusion of choice while pushing consumers “into making a choice they might not want to take.”

“Given the market power of Meta’s Facebook and Instagram services in the EU and the very strong network effects of social media platforms (since all your friends are on Facebook and Instagram), consumers do not have a real choice because if they quit the services they would lose all their contacts and interactions built over the years,” the BEUC argued. “The very high subscription fee for ‘ad-free’ services is also a deterrent for consumers, which means consumers do not have a real choice.”

BEUC also argued that Meta allegedly deceives users into thinking that opting in to a paid subscription means there will be “less tracking and profiling.” Instead, it appears to the consumer group that “users are likely to continue to have their personal data collected and used, but for purposes other than ads,” because Meta has so far only promised “while people are subscribed, their information will not be used for ads.”

In a statement to Reuters, BEUC Deputy Director General Ursula Pachl said that “Meta is breaching EU consumer law by using unfair, deceptive, and aggressive practices, including partially blocking consumers from using the services to force them to take a decision quickly, and providing misleading and incomplete information in the process.”

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