BRUSSELS - Facebook and Instagram users in Europe will be able to buy subscriptions to use the social networks without being tracked for targeted advertising from next month, Meta announced Monday, to comply with tougher European Union (EU) rules.
Tech titans now face a growing European Union legal arsenal, which was designed to curb how they do business online and demands better privacy protection for users.
Firms like Meta use user data to serve highly targeted ads, and they have struggled to comply with the strict rules of the EU's 2018 data privacy regulation (GDPR).
Europe has hit Meta with huge fines over privacy and how it uses European users' data.
From November, European users will be able to subscribe for a fee of 9.99 euros ($10.50) a month on the web, or 12.99 euros on mobile phones using iOS and Android systems, Meta said.
Subscriptions would apply to an individual's linked Facebook and Instagram accounts.
Privacy campaigners have previously warned they would launch legal challenges against such fees, accusing tech firms of asking users to pay for their fundamental rights, while skirting legal efforts to regulate privacy.
Asked by AFP, there was no immediate response from the European Commission as to whether to subscription option would assuage Brussels' privacy concerns.
From March 1, 2024, there will be an additional fee of six euros a month for access on the web and eight on smartphones for each additional account listed.
The EU's rules are a risk to Meta's lucrative revenue from advertising since they seek to curb its use of users' data without consent.
Meta's latest decision demonstrates the far-reaching impact of the EU's laws, shaking up the previous free model.
- Future legal battle? -
Meta believes that taking this move to offer subscriptions will assuage EU regulators' concerns over its data collection and how ads are targeted.
But rights campaigners have suggested the moves are an attempt to circumvent the rules.
Users will still be able to enjoy the platforms for free with advertising, but the information of those who pay "will not be used for ads", Meta said.
Only people aged 18 and over will be able to buy subscriptions.
"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 (European Economic Area) and Switzerland," it said.
The EEA includes the 27's member states and Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.
Meta said an EU court ruled a subscription model is "a valid form of consent for an ads funded service" but prominent online privacy activist Max Schrems slammed this approach of ending tracking only for paid users.
"Introducing this idea in the area of your right to data protection is a major shift. We would fight this up and down the courts," Schrems said earlier this month.
According to Bruegel think tank affiliate fellow Christophe Carugati, Meta's offer on the face of it would be "fully compliant" with the EU rules.
It would then be up to the EU's member states to decide on whether online platforms can offer a binary choice between being tracked or paying for privacy, he said.
"The question is, whether the fee because of user behaviour... is considered as a free choice," Carugati said, pointing to the expectations that only a small number of users would opt for the paid version.
Carugati expects this issue to be at the heart of any legal challenge.
- 'Committed' to compliance -
Meta also pointed to the EU's landmark Digital Markets Act (DMA), which aims to curb how big tech does business online, with stricter rules on advertising.
The rules will apply from March 2024.
Digital giants like Meta also have to adhere to stricter rules on advertising under another law known as the Digital Services Act (DSA) which demands greater policing of online content.
It also said it was "exploring how to provide teens with a useful and responsible ad experience". The DSA bans targeted advertising for children aged 13 to 17.
Ireland, acting on behalf of the EU as the host country of the firm's European HQ, has hit Meta with many eye-watering fines.
Irish regulators hit Meta in May with a record 1.2-billion-euro fine for transferring EU user data to the United States in breach of a previous court ruling.
Meta has taken a cautious approach to compliance and has even refused to roll out Threads -- its challenger to X, formerly known as Twitter -- in the EU because it wanted to wait for regulatory clarity before launching in the bloc.