Payments in Instagram: why is Meta charging users?

Subscription payments in Instagram and Facebook remove ads in user feeds as Europe's Digital Services Act influences US tech giants.
1 November 2023

More than a numbers game: Meta is introducing subscription payments in Instagram and Facebook to remove ads from user feeds, as the social networking operator adjusts its operations in light of Europe’s Digital Services Act. Image credit: Sebastien Bozon / AFP.

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Earlier this year, social media giant Meta rolled out a paid verification service to users of Instagram and Facebook, two of its popular social media channels. Payments in Instagram and Facebook of $11.99 (or $14.99 for subscriptions via the app rather than through the web) per month – together with the submission of an official ID – added a ‘verified’ badge to user accounts. The ‘Meta verified’ feature’ establishes account authenticity and provides protection from impersonation with proactive account monitoring.

With Meta verified now available in most markets, the social media giant said over the Summer that it would continue to evolve the paid-for service to explore new features and benefits. And that expansion includes making businesses eligible to sign-up to the service, which Instagram’s help center reveals could boost discovery for subscribers. “Features may include appearing at or near the top of comments and search results when people type your business name, or appearing as a recommended business to follow in Feed,” writes Meta.

No ads on your Instagram and Facebook feed

And now, the US social media firm – headquartered in Menlo Park, California – has announced further subscription payments options in its Instagram and Facebook products, reaching out to users in Europe.

Instagram and Facebook users can continue to use both services for free (assuming they are not already paying for Meta’s verified service) and will see ads that are relevant to them. However, for a payment of EURO 9.99 via the web (or EURO 12.99 per month if subscribing through iOS or Android, reflecting additional fees charged by Apple and Google as part of their purchasing policies), users can choose to stop seeing ads.

In its announcement, Meta makes clear that the tech company still believes in an ad-supported internet. And the firm doesn’t hide why it’s making changes to how it operates in Europe, addressing what it describes as ‘a number of evolving and emerging regulatory requirements in the region’.

“In its ruling, the Court of Justice of the European Union expressly recognized that a subscription model, like the one we are announcing, is a valid form of consent for an ads-funded service,” says Meta on its Newsroom page.

More details on ad-free Instagram and Facebook tier

The ad-free Instagram and Facebook tier appears to be an additional subscription payment on top of monthly fees for a Meta verified account. And, if this is the case, it means that monthly subscription payments in Instagram and Facebook could add up to more than EURO 20.00, or over EURO 280.00 per year, which sounds like a lot of money for users to pay for social media.

Businesses – brands in particular – will want to see ads so that they can keep tabs on their competition. Also, ads are only annoying when they are irrelevant to users, so there’s an argument that if you’ve been using either social media app for a while – long enough for Meta to get to know you – then you may not want to switch to a paid plan, aside from cost considerations.

In paragraph three of Meta’s terms of service (last updated on 25 April 2023), the firm says: “We don’t’ sell your personal data to advertisers, and we don’t share information that directly identifies you (such as your name, email address and other contact information) with advertisers unless you give us specific permission.”

Meta doesn’t say explicitly in its latest announcement whether having an ad-free subscription stops firms from learning about those users in an anonymized, bundled way. Instead, the company spotlights its free service and points out that users have the choice to influence the ads that they see as well as the data used to inform their selection.

Given the billions of dollars that Meta makes from selling ads, it’s little surprise that the firm is playing down the benefits of users making payments in Instagram and Facebook to block them. Also, it’d take an awful lot of subscriptions to replace that revenue, and getting users to switch from free to paid plans is like pushing water uphill, which makes it hard to believe that going ad-free has business legs for the company’s social networking operations.

Data privacy and data transparency

What does make sense is Meta making these changes to comply with Europe’s Digital Services Act so that it can continue doing business in the region. The legislation, which bolsters support for user data privacy and data transparency has seen Meta introduce a range of measures to how it does business. For example, in August the Instagram and Facebook owner announced that it was building an Ad Library (with a rolling year’s worth of ads searchable by the public) to display and archive all ads that target users.

The Ad Library records dates that the ad ran, the targeting parameters, such as age, gender, and location, and includes a reporting feature that gives an aggregated view on ads about social issues, elections, or politics – searchable by country. At the time of writing Meta’s Ad Library report shows a total of 1,025,597 ads corresponding to a spend of more than £152.8 million, based on UK statistics. For the US, the numbers are 15,621,438 and over $4 billion.

Through the release of 22 system cards for Facebook and Instagram, Meta has started to make public how its AI systems rank content for Feed, Reels, and Stories channels on its social media platforms. So far, so good, but questions still remain about whether the steps being taken by Meta go far enough to meet the expectations of European legislators. Meta clearly believes that they do. “The option for people to purchase a subscription for no ads balances the requirements of European regulators while giving users choice and allowing Meta to continue serving all people in the EU, EEA, and Switzerland,” writes the US firm.

However, the point remains whether privacy is something that has to be purchased or should be there by default. Recall that, at the highest level, Europe’s Digital Services Act package has two main goals. Legislators want to protect the fundamental rights of users of digital services and ensure a level playing field (through the inclusion of the Digital Markets Act). And it speaks to the importance of the European market to tech firms that we are seeing responses such as Meta’s ad-free subscription payments in Instagram and Facebook.