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EU Policy. Paid ad-free platforms should not be default option, privacy watchdogs say

The Facebook app is shown on a mobile screen.
The Facebook app is shown on a mobile screen. Copyright Richard Drew/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Richard Drew/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Cynthia Kroet
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Opinion comes after Meta introduced its consent or pay model last October.

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Online platforms should give users a real choice when implementing so-called “consent or pay” models, which allow users to pay a fee in exchange for ad-free access to the platform, an opinion by the EU’s data protection authorities said today (17 April).

“The models we have today usually require individuals to either give away all their data or to pay. As a result most users consent to the processing in order to use a service, and they do not understand the full implications of their choices,” Anu Talus, chair of the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) said in a statement.

The opinion, drafted by the heads of the national EU data protection authorities, refers to all online platforms but comes in particular after Meta announced last October that it will offer Facebook and Instagram users in the EU, EEA and Switzerland a choice to pay a monthly fee to use the platforms without any ads. If they continue using the platform as before, they will receive tailored ads.

Meta said it made the changes to comply with platform rules for gatekeepers under the Digital Markets Act (DMA), and after an opinion by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which endorsed subscription model as a way for people to consent to data processing for personalised advertising.

The EDPB opinion today said that most of these payment models will not be fully compliant with the principle of valid consent under the EU's data protection rules if they merely offer users a choice between consenting to processing of personal data for behavioural advertising purposes and paying a fee.

“The EDPB considers that offering only a paid alternative to services which involve the processing of personal data for behavioural advertising purposes should not be the default way forward for controllers,” the opinion said.

Alternative

The authorities said that Big Tech companies should therefore consider giving users an ‘equivalent alternative’ other than paying a fee.

"If controllers do opt to charge a fee for access to the ‘equivalent alternative’, they should give significant consideration to offering an additional alternative. This free alternative should be without behavioural advertising, e.g. with a form of advertising involving the processing of less or no personal data. This is a particularly important factor in the assessment of valid consent under the GDPR," it said.

A spokesperson for Meta told Euronews today that the ECJ ruling already acknowledged that "subscriptions model is a legally valid way for companies to seek people’s consent for personalised advertising."

"Today’s EDPB Opinion does not alter that judgment and Subscription for no ads complies with EU laws," the spokesperson added.

In addition to today's decision, the EDPB will also develop guidelines on ‘consent or pay’ models with a broader scope.

Complaints

Meta's subscription model sparked questions from civil society groups including Access Now, EDRI and NOYB; they called upon the EDPB in an open letter published 15 April not to endorse the strategy by Meta.

In February, consumer organisations from eight EU countries also filed complaints with national data protection authorities against Meta, claiming that the US social media giant is illegally collecting user data through its subscription model for ad-free use of the platform.

Last month (25 March), the EU executive opened an investigation into several platforms under the DMA, including Meta. The Commission said in a statement at the time that it is concerned “that the binary choice imposed by Meta's 'pay or consent' model may not provide a real alternative in case users do not consent, thereby not achieving the objective of preventing the accumulation of personal data by gatekeepers.” 

The probe should be concluded within one year.

This article has been updated to add a statement from Meta.

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