People who use Facebook and Instagram in about 30 European countries will soon have a choice. Kind of.
They can agree to see ads based on Meta’s tracking of what they do online and their whereabouts. Or they can stop ads on Facebook and Instagram if they pay about $17 a month. (Or they can quit those apps.)
Facebook and Instagram without ads aren’t available in the United States.
The subscription announced on Monday – at a higher price than a standard Netflix subscription – appears to be Meta’s savvy (or cynical) way to offer a paid version that few people will buy to shut up European regulators tightening the rules of Meta’s business.
Even so, Meta’s subscription may be the largest test of whether people are so repulsed by data-gobbling internet advertising that some of them will pay to turn it off.
One wrinkle: For Europeans who pay for a subscription, Meta will stockpile as much data about them as before. Meta just won’t use that information to show ads.
Let’s consider two questions: Is paying for Meta’s apps without ads a good deal? And is it a real solution to have a creepy Facebook unless you pay?
A focus on subscriptions is a distraction from what you deserve; companies should collect less data on everyone.
Why is Meta offering a paid subscription option in Europe?
European regulators and courts want people to have an explicit choice of what’s now an implicit agreement: If people use Meta, they essentially let the company collect as much personal information as it can get away with to show ads.
Meta’s subscription is a middle ground between people agreeing to data-dependent advertising or quitting Meta apps entirely.
The subscription will cost the equivalent of about $10.60 a month starting in November. Early next year, the price will increase to about $17 a month for people who want to use both Facebook and Instagram without ads in a linked account.
At the price Meta is charging, the company may figure that not many people will pay but the company fulfills its obligation to let people say no to personalized ads.
(It’s not clear yet if European regulators and courts will agree that Meta’s subscription fulfills the company’s legal requirements.)
In Europe, people using Facebook and Instagram already have the option to limit the information Meta uses to sell ads. They haven’t been able to turn off ads entirely until now.
For Europeans who pay for a subscription, Meta will still collect about as much data.
That information can include the posts you like, which websites you visit, your physical location if you have Meta’s apps installed on a smartphone and estimates of your age, income and hobbies – including how often you travel and whether you’re friends with soccer fans.
Meta said that it believes in the value of an ad-supported internet but that the company respects “the spirit and purpose of these evolving European regulations, and are committed to complying with them.”
Meta’s subscriptions will be available in Germany, France, Spain, Poland, Greece, Switzerland, Slovakia, Norway and other countries.
Is it worth paying for Facebook and Instagram?
Only you can decide what Facebook and Instagram without ads are worth to you.
But Europeans who choose a subscription could bring in more money for Meta. From rough calculations from Meta’s financial disclosures, the company generates less than $8 each month on average from each person using Facebook in Europe.
Those figures count people in large countries such as Russia and Turkey who won’t have the option of a subscription without ads.
That means by charging about $17 for ad-free Facebook and Instagram, Meta could be making more money from a subscription than the company would earn from showing ads.
Maybe you’re thinking there is no way you would pay for Facebook or Instagram. But about 80 million people as of last year subscribed to versions of YouTube with features such as turning off ads. (That figure included people who were getting a YouTube subscription free.)
The live-streaming app Twitch also has a subscription for $11.99 a month to remove ads. TikTok is among the apps testing the same thing.
Is a paid subscription the right answer?
Our internet system and the laws governing it are based on a failed principle of consent and choice.
Companies ask you in long legal contracts to consent to how they use your personal information. But your only real choice is to give up full knowledge and control over what happens to your data, or don’t use the service at all.
With Meta’s subscription, the illusion of choice remains. Some people get a reprieve from having their personal data harvested for financial gain as long as they keep paying Meta.
What would be better from Meta?
Lower prices couldn’t hurt. If Meta prices its subscription knowing most people can’t or won’t pay, it’s not a real deal. Authorities in the United States could try to force Meta to offer a reasonably priced subscription without ads to Americans, too. (Don’t count on it.)
The problem with companies such as Meta and Google goes deeper. Lots of internet services try to collect every morsel of who you are and what you do – even if you pay for an app, according to one 2020 research paper.
Meta is right that billions of people can connect online and access news and entertainment because they’re paid for with ads.But companies don’t need to stockpile data on every restaurant you’ve visited or all the contacts on your phone to show you a swimsuit ad.
That’s how many apps, such as Google and Meta, work, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
The answer is to force companies to collect less information on everyone, regardless of their willingness to avoid ads.
One tiny win
Here is a money-saving tip you might not know about: If you buy a subscription to Facebook, YouTube, Audible or X, you will save money buying it from the companies’ websites rather than from their apps.
Some companies – including the ones I just mentioned – charge more when you sign up and pay for a subscription in their apps.
For example, Meta said its new subscription for Facebook without ads in Europe costs 9.99 euros (about $10.60) if you buy it from your Facebook account on the web. If you buy the same subscription in Facebook’s smartphone apps, it costs 12.99 euros (about $13.75).
Meta also already offers a subscription that promises to help you with problems including hacked accounts. It’s $11.99 a month if you buy the subscription from your Facebook account in a web browser, but $14.99 when you subscribe in the app.
If you buy the YouTube Premium subscription to stop ads in videos plus get access to YouTube’s Spotify-like music service, it now costs $13.99 a month in the United States if you purchase from YouTube’s website. It’s $18.99 a month if you buy the subscription from YouTube’s iPhone app. (In the Android app, the subscription costs $13.99. Google owns YouTube so maybe it declined to charge fees to itself.)
The price differences are companies’ way of at least partly offsetting the fees they owe Apple or Google as the owners of the dominant app stores.
Apple and Google charge a commission of up to 30 percent of anything digital you purchase in an app. They don’t charge a commission when you buy something such as an Uber ride or a cookbook that exists in the physical world.
Higher prices for the same subscription depending on which device you use to make the purchase don’t really make sense. And the price differences are rarely explicit, partly because Apple and Google make it harder for you to be an informed consumer.