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Does paying for social media apps ensure data privacy?

A recent Washington Post headline asked: “Would you pay $17 a month for Facebook and Instagram?” This was after Meta announced at the end of last month that it would begin offering users in Europe the choice to pay a monthly subscription to continue using their social media platforms without any ads.

It is important to understand why Meta is suddenly offering a paid, ad-free version of their product (in Europe) even though they firmly “believe in an ad-supported internet, which gives people access to personalized products and services regardless of their economic status.” 

Let’s look at what is happening to Meta in Europe and how it may impact users around the world as well as the existing business models of social media companies.

Tighter regulations drive a new business model

Advertisers flocked to social media companies because of the prospect of highly targeted advertisements – something traditional print publications can’t offer. But that business model requires amassing as much information about users as possible, a strategy that has led some observers, notably Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business School, to label “surveillance capitalism.”

Of course, other social media companies have been toying with the idea of subscription models as ad revenue has decreased for some platforms – think X (Twitter) – but for the most part, Meta’s choice is less about making an ad-free experience and more about not losing business in the European market because of tighter regulations across the European Union (E.U.).

In May, the E.U. fined Meta $1.3 billion for data privacy and protection violations and ordered the company to stop sending European user data to the U.S. Then in July, the E.U.’s highest court upheld a 2019 decision by German antitrust regulators that determined Meta needed to garner proper consent from users to collect the endless amounts of data it currently collects on every user that signs up for their platforms.

An article from CNN notes that the General Data Protection Regulation means that “Meta must cite one of several specific legal justifications in order to collect and use people’s personal data for advertising.” This is where the subscription model comes into play, as it may help differentiate between users that consent to data collection and those that don’t.

Will this satisfy everyone?

There is no guarantee that this proposition by Meta will satisfy the regulatory requirements, but there is also no guarantee that this will satisfy users either. Even though users can pay to opt out of ads, the platform will still be collecting just as much data as before – they just won’t use it to show ads. 

What does this mean for users who do not consent to having their data collected and used for ads and opt to pay for the service but are still having their data collected? How will this information be used? If a user chooses to stop paying for the subscription and resorts back to the free ad-supported version, will all that data collected now be used for advertising purposes?

It is important to point out that this subscription service is also only available for adults and not teens. According to the official Meta statement, “the subscription for no ads will be available for people aged 18 and up, and we’re continuing to explore how to provide teens with a useful and responsible ad experience given this evolving regulatory landscape.” Therefore, what does this mean for data collection on teen users?

A push for true data privacy

Meta isn’t the only company facing increased scrutiny and growing tensions in relation to data privacy. The Chinese-based company TikTok has faced push-back from governments in other countries, including those within the E.U., for the possibility that employees from a sister company may be illegally accessing their data. This has resulted in several countries banning the use of TikTok on government devices.

To help with some privacy concerns, TikTok has begun migrating E.U. user data from China to local data centers within the E.U. after opening the first of three centers in Dublin, Ireland. The full migration is expected to be complete by the end of next year. 

Although some of the newer social media platforms, such as Bluesky and Mastodon, promise to collect less data, there is no guarantee that it will stay that way. Meta may be narrowly complying with the data privacy regulations in Europe by offering this subscription model, but how long will it last and what else is really going on with your data? As the Washington Post reporter, Shira Ovide, noted “a focus on subscriptions is a distraction from what you deserve. Companies should collect less data on everyone.”


  • Julianne Culey

    Julianne is the Assistant Director of the Reynolds Center with expertise in marketing and communications and holds a master's in Sociology from Arizona State University.

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