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EU Should Not Allow Anti-Tech Organizations to Weaponize EU Laws to Protect Freeloaders

EU Should Not Allow Anti-Tech Organizations to Weaponize EU Laws to Protect Freeloaders

December 8, 2023

Advocacy groups in Europe have recently filed complaints with regulators arguing that the methods Meta and Google use to monetize their services violate EU laws. However, a closer look at their demands shows that these groups are effectively telling regulators they should require online services to provide consumers with access to their online services, even if consumers block ads and refuse to pay a subscription for ad-free access. In short, they want to have it both ways: free online services and no online advertising. Regulators should roundly reject such outlandish and unsustainable tactics to legalize online freeloading.

Consider a case involving Meta’s decision earlier this year to offer European consumers the option to continue using its ad-supported social networks or pay a €9.99 monthly subscription to access an ad-free version of Facebook and Instagram. Meta built this ad-free subscription service to give users another option to access its services. However, the advocacy group noyb filed a complaint with Austrian data protection authorities arguing that Meta is not obtaining proper consent from users under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) because users can only provide consent if it is their “genuine free will to do so.” The group argues that since consumers can only use Facebook and Instagram if they receive ads or pay for an ad-free experience, Meta is not giving them a “genuinely free choice.”

This argument is absurd. The “genuinely free choice” consumers have is whether to use the service. But if they choose to use the service, they have to do so on the terms of the service provider. Meta is no different than any other service provider in this regard. When consumers go to a gym or take their clothes to a dry cleaner, they have to pay whatever price the provider charges. Businesses are not violating people’s free will when they require that consumers compensate them for their services.

In addition, BEUC, an umbrella group of European consumer advocacy organizations, filed a complaint with EU consumer protection regulators arguing that Meta’s “pay-or-consent approach is unfair and must be stopped.” According to BEUC, “consumers do not have a real choice” because “if they quit the services they would lose all their contacts and interactions built over the years” and the “very high subscription fee for ‘ad-free’ services is also a deterrent.” Here again, Meta is no different than other service providers. When a hair salon raises its rates, nobody tries to argue that consumers have no “real choice” because they must either pay more or find a new stylist. Consumers may not always like their options, but they do have a choice.

Another case involves Google’s decision to restrict consumers from using ad-blocking software when they watch videos on YouTube. Earlier this year, Google began alerting consumers who were using ad blockers that they must either turn off their ad blockers for YouTube or subscribe to YouTube Premium, a $13.99 per month ad-free version of its site. In response, Alexander Hanff, a privacy activist, filed a complaint with the Irish Data Protection Commission arguing that by detecting whether users are running ad blockers Google is effectively using invasive and illegal “spyware” tools and “it is not acceptable to deploy them without consent” under the EU’s privacy laws. He has asked for the Irish regulator to ban Google from using ad blocker detection tools, which would mean that YouTube could not stop users who block its ads from using its service. Such a restriction would be impractical. It would be like allowing sports venues to sell tickets to games, but not allowing them to employ security guards to keep people from sneaking in.

These types of proposed restrictions would make no sense in any other sector. Imagine regulators telling publishers of free newspapers that they also had to print a no-cost, ad-free version to give consumers a free choice. Or lawmakers demanding that sales professionals, who often offer prospective clients something free, such as a nice meal or a free hotel stay, in exchange for attending a sales pitch, instead let people have the reward without showing up for the meeting. Freeloading is not sustainable for any business.

The advocates in these cases are attempting to use EU laws to undercut legitimate business models for online services. In both instances, Meta and Google have given consumers a choice of using a free, ad-supported online service or paying to use an ad-free version. Regulators should not force online services to cater to freeloaders who want to avoid ads but not pay. Not only would that be unfair to those users who do pay, but if users widely adopted the practice, online services would quickly become unprofitable, and consumers would lose access to these valuable services altogether. Regulators should reject these frivolous complaints, and policymakers should take care that future laws cannot be similarly weaponized against standard business practices.

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