EU users may soon have to pay for ad-free Instagram and Facebook

We’re so used to scrolling through Facebook and Instagram for free that it’s become second nature. But users in the European Union (EU) may soon have to pay up if they want to continue browsing without personalized ads.

Meta, the parent company of both Facebook and Instagram, has floated the idea of European users having the option to pay a monthly fee – or agree to personalized ads, the Wall Street Journal reported.

This is, of course, the tech giant’s attempt to work around the new EU privacy rules. European regulators say Facebook and Instagram shouldn’t use their services to require users to accept personalized ads based on their digital activity – they should be asked first and have the option to decline.

The ability to show targeted ads is the main source of revenue for Meta. In fact, advertising accounted for a whopping 97% of Meta’s $117 billion revenue last year.

Unsurprisingly, the company feels threatened and has now deployed a proposal to give users the choice between accessing its platforms freely but with personalized ads, or paying for ad-free access.

It would seem Meta is betting on the hypothesis that most users will choose not to pay and continue sacrificing their activity data.

Precise targeting

According to WSJ sources, Meta has told the EU regulators that it would charge users around €10 ($10.5) a month for a Facebook or Instagram desktop account. The price would rise to roughly €13 ($13.6) for mobile devices because Meta has to pay commissions to the Apple and Google app stores.

Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg has long said that its platforms should remain free and supported by advertising. In 2019, he wrote in an op-ed: “I believe everyone should have a voice and be able to connect. If we’re committed to serving everyone, then we need a service that is affordable to everyone. The best way to do that is to offer services for free, which ads enable us to do.”

However, demands by the EU regulators, keen to protect the all-precious user data, have changed the scene. That’s because the ability to target users with precise ads allows Meta to charge the advertisers more, which is what Zuckerberg admitted in the very same op-ed.

“Although advertising to specific groups existed well before the internet, online advertising allows much more precise targeting and therefore more relevant ads,” said Zuckerberg.

Meta has for years allowed users to opt out of personalized ads based on data from other websites and apps – but not for ads based on user activity on its own platforms.

A reasonable fee?

In December 2022, Reuters reported that the Irish Data Protection Commission – which oversees Meta because its European headquarters is located in Dublin – issued a confidential but binding decision that Meta can only run ads based on personal data with users’ content.

When the EU’s Court of Justice agreed in July 2023, Meta finally relented and proposed to make some of its personalized, targeted ads an up-front opt-in choice for users in the EU.

In theory, this would mean simply clicking yes or no. But now, the idea is that refusing to give up your data for ad personalization would cost you money.

To be fair, Meta already introduced a paid-user-verification service in March – just like Snapchat and X – but the implications of the fresh proposal would be much wider.

It remains to be seen whether regulators in Dublin or Brussels will deem the new plan to be compliant with European laws. Under the EU law, a user who declines to give consent for certain data use must still be able to access a service – but not necessarily free of charge.

The EU’s Court of Justice said in its decision that social media companies could indeed charge an “appropriate fee” to users who decline to let their data be used for ad-targeting purposes.

Of course, the question then is whether €10 or €13 will be deemed reasonable by the EU regulators. They might, for example, insist on Meta offering a third way – a free version with ads that aren’t personalized.

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