Meta’s “Pay or Okay” policy a dangerous precedent, activists say

If the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) does not officially say that Meta’s “Pay or Okay” system violates the bloc’s privacy regulations, it will probably be copied en masse and put free consent at risk for millions of Europeans, activists say.

Since late last year, Facebook and Instagram users in the EU have had to pay a subscription fee if they want to use the ad-free versions of the platforms that don’t collect their data for targeted advertising.

Meta switched to such a “Pay or Okay” system after the European Court of Justice (CJEU) declared the company’s handling of user data – selling it as the main source of profit for the firm – illegal in July 2023 (PDF).

“In the European region, you can subscribe to use our Products without ads, or you can use them for free with ads. We've updated our terms and privacy policies to reflect these options,” said Meta’s updated terms in November 2023.

However, privacy advocacy groups have long said this was a blatant workaround that has allowed Meta to keep bypassing the General Data Protection Regulation, the EU’s tough privacy and security law.

That’s because the company is choosing to charge users a fee for refusing its tracking for personalized ads rather than simply asking them for yes/no consent. Around 30 activist groups have now urged the EDPB to officially voice opposition to the policy in an open letter.

”The EDPBs opinion will shape the future of data protection and the internet for years to come. It is of utmost importance that the opinion truly ensures data subjects a ‘genuine and free choice’ regarding the processing of their personal data,” says the letter (PDF).

Vienna-based NOYB (None Of Your Business), the digital rights group, went one step further. It collected data on the current implementation of the “Pay or Okay” approach in selected EU member states. It turns out that protecting your privacy is already very expensive.

For instance, 30% of the top 100 websites in Germany are already using “Pay or Okay” to drive up consent rates, NOYB said. Using these websites without tracking for personalized ads would already cost more than €1,500 per year. In Spain, users would face costs of about 1,460 €, while in France, the price for privacy already exceeds €1,100.

“If the EDPB legitimizes the approach for Meta, more and more companies will follow the example and switch to ‘Pay or Okay,’ rendering the fundamental right to privacy virtually useless. Even now, the price for privacy would break the budget of most people. And it will only get worse in the future,” said the organization.

The EDPB, which consists of data protection agencies from EU countries as well as Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein, needs to determine by the end of March whether to object to Meta’s policies.