Meta's controversial ad-free subscription is facing scrutiny from EU privacy campaigners

noyb says the €9.99/month subscription price is out of proportion to tracking data value.

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In a bid to comply with updated privacy rules in Europe, Meta recently gave Facebook and Instagram users in the region an ultimatum. They either had to agree to receive targeted ads or sign up for a €10 per month subscription for each app (or stop using them altogether). That would give users the choice of opting out of ad tracking, but they'd have to pay a hefty sum to do so.

Now, an Austrian privacy group called noyb has filed a complaint against that Meta's actions on behalf of a client in financial distress. The group stated that the subscription price is out of proportion to the value Facebook receives, so it's effectively a false choice for users without the means to pay for a subscription.

"More than 20% of the EU population are already at risk of poverty," wrote noyb founder noted EU privacy advocate Max Schrems. "For the complainant in our case, as for many others, a ‘Pay or Okay’ system would mean paying the rent or having privacy."

Citing Meta's own data, noyb said that the company's average revenue per user in Europe was $16.79 between Q3 2022 and Q3 2023, or about €62.88 per user. However, it plans to charge a minimum of €120 per year (more if you sign up on a smartphone), or up to €251.88 ($275.88) to have both Instagram and Facebook.

noyb notes that 3 to 10 percent of users want personalized ads, but 99.9 percent consent, due to the lack of a true choice. "EU law requires that consent is the genuine free will of the user. Contrary to this law, Meta charges a 'privacy fee' of up to €250 per year if anyone dares to exercise their fundamental right to data protection," said noyb's data protection lawyer Felix Mikolasch.

Meta's actions are also likely to set off a "domino effect," according to noyb. "Already now, TikTok is reportedly testing an ad-free subscription outside the US. Other app providers could follow in the near future, making online privacy unaffordable." It added that if multiple apps took the same approach, data privacy would be available "only for the rich."

Meta defended its approach, saying it follows EU laws. "The option for people to purchase a subscription for no ads balances the requirements of European regulators while giving users choice and allowing Meta to continue serving all people in the EU, EEA and Switzerland. In its ruling, the CJEU expressly recognized that a subscription model, like the one we are announcing, is a valid form of consent for an ads funded service," a spokesperson told TechCrunch, referring to a post from last month.

However, European courts have stated that any fee charged to avoid tracking on products must be "necessary" and "appropriate." It also says that consent must be freely given. noyb appears to be targeting those clauses by arguing that the relatively high fees will effectively deter free choice by EU citizens, particularly those in financial difficulty.

"Fundamental rights are usually available to everyone. How many people would still exercise their right to vote if they had to pay €250 to do so? There were times when fundamental rights were reserved for the rich. It seems Meta wants to take us back for more than a hundred years," Schrems said.