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Meta is willing to give a discount for ad-free Instagram and Facebook. An offer one can’t pass up?

Meta, designated as a “gatekeeper” under the new EU antitrust law, the DMA (Digital Markets Act), is struggling to comply with its provisions. The stumbling block that the company cannot seem to overcome is to secure “freely given” consent from users of Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger for the use of their personal data in targeted advertising. The twist? Users must retain full access to these platforms even if they opt out of data sharing, ensuring their digital footprints aren’t vacuumed up by Meta for ad targeting purposes.

Back in November, Meta came up with an ingenious solution — charge users €9.99 for a single account on the web and then €6 more for each additional account. On mobile, Meta planned to charge €12.99 per month for a single account and then €8 per month for each additional account on top of that. The grand total would have come to about €35 per month, assuming a user wanted an ad-free Instagram and Facebook experience on both desktop and mobile.

The offer did not strike a chord either with users or with regulators. So, faced with the prospect of paying a hefty fine for failing to comply with the DMA and put up against the wall, Meta came up with an equally ingenious proposal to cut its “privacy fee” in half.

According to Reuters, Meta told the European Commission that it was willing to drop the price from €9.99 to €5.99 for a single account and from €6 to €4 for each additional account. “We have wanted to accelerate that process for some time because we need to get to a steady state,” Meta lawyer Tim Lamb was cited as saying.

An offer good enough or a smokescreen to cover true intentions?

We can debate whether the discount is big enough, and whether $4 makes that much of a difference. However, the exact amount of the fee is not what should be at the center of the discussion. If anything, it distracts from the most important question, which is whether the choice between paying a fee and having your data slurped up by a data churning machine like Meta is a real choice.

We don’t think it is. These two options are not equally free, and they never can be. While in one case you just click “agree,” in the other you have to pay Meta a potentially ever-increasing fee to keep your privacy intact. But privacy shouldn’t be a privilege only the better-off can afford, it’s a right that we believe everyone should have the ability to practice.

Privacy advocates NOYB, who were on the fence about the Meta ‘pay or ok’ scheme from day one, argue that a lower fee, whatever it is, does not equal compliance.

The GDPR clearly states that consent must be “freely” given. Meta, on the other hand, is hiding the “refuse” button behind a paywall.

Venturing into the practical realm of this consent dilemma, we encounter another puzzle. According to recent research, highlighted by NOYB, a whopping 99.9% of website visitors would prefer to consent to tracking rather than fork out a modest fee of €1.99.

We strongly suspect that Meta is aware of these and other findings indicating that users would be reluctant to dig into their wallets en masse for the sake of protection against data mining and subsequent targeted advertising. It’s more likely that Meta has never really counted on users accepting any fee, hence the initial fee proposal that bordered on the unrealistic. Perhaps this was a strategic play, leaving wiggle room for a dramatic price cut announcement in the future — halving prices always makes for good press since it sounds like a generous concession. Yet, this maneuver just reinforces a troubling notion: that privacy is a luxury reserved for the few. And it’s a notion we cannot agree with.

Potentially dire consequences for privacy

As NOYB points out, if the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) gives the green light to Meta’s “pay or okay” system, such a decision can pave the way for more companies to adopt a similar approach.

The choice between “yes” or “no” to invasive tracking will finally and irrevocably be replaced by “pay or have your data commoditized” by Big Tech. This, the privacy advocacy group argues, will be tantamount to “rendering the fundamental right to privacy virtually useless.”

Such a conclusion may sound too harsh, but normalizing online surveillance under the guise of giving users choice is nothing more than creating a smokescreen. And we, as well as regulators, should see through it.

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