The ‘Pay-or-Consent’ Challenge for Platform Regulators

Lambert here:

By Christophe Carugati, an affiliate fellow at Bruegel on digital and competition issues. He holds a Doctor in Law and Economics on Big Data and Competition Law from Paris II University, a Master in Law Economics from the European Master in Law and Economics (EMLE, University of Bologna, Hamburg, and Vienna), a master in Business Law from Aix-Marseille University, and a double Bachelor in Law and Economics from Toulouse School of Economics (TSE). Originally published at Breugel.

Meta-owned Facebook’s original slogan, “it’s free and always will be”, illustrates what most users think about paying for online services. So far, Meta and other digital firms have offered most of their services for free to encourage user enrolment. Yet, free services are not really free. Most are funded by an advertising model built on users’ personal data.

There has been an ongoing clash between this model and European Union regulations, including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA), which make it harder for these ad-funded services to rely on personal data. Increasingly, EU laws require users to give explicit consent to the collection and use of their personal data, whether is it collected inside (on-platform, eg only from Facebook) or outside the platform (off-platform, eg from applications and websites).

Several GDPR-related rulings against Meta in Germany 1 , Ireland 2 , Norway 3  and in Luxembourg by the European Court of Justice (CJEU) 4  have confirmed that platforms can only collect and use data with the user’s explicit consent. The DMA imposes additional obligations on gatekeepers – inevitable service gateways – that provide core platform services, including Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram 5 , to request consent as per the GDPR for collection and use of off-Meta data for personalised advertising (Recitals 36 and 37 and Article 5(2)(a) DMA). In response to the legal developments, Meta now relies on consent to collect on-Meta and off-Meta data 6 .

In addition, on 30 October 2023, Meta also said it will now offer a paid, ad-free version of its flagship products, Facebook and Instagram, to users who do not want to consent to the use of their data (the ad-free paid version). An ad-supported free version of these services will continue to be available if users do consent. In other words, Meta is now providing a pay-or-consent offer similar to a paywall.

This pay-or-consent offer might affect the dynamics of competition in platform markets. Users will have three options: 1) pay for the ad-free version if they do not want to give consent; 2) use the ad-supported free version if they do consent; or 3) find a competing provider if they are unwilling to pay or to give consent.

However, whether Meta can propose the ad-supported free version with the requirement to give consent to data use is legally a grey area. The GDPR requires a genuine choice, meaning users must have a real choice between accepting and refusing consent. For users who are unwilling to pay and unable to switch to an alternative provider, the only realistic option is to use the ad-supported free version, which only allows users to give consent.

National data protection authorities (DPAs) enforcing the GDPR, and the European Commission as the enforcer of the DMA might consider this offer non-compliant, requiring Meta to offer its ad-supported free version with an accept or decline consent offer, as Meta offer its services currently.

The Pay-or-Consent Offer 

The legality of the pay-or-consent offer is a grey area. National data protection authorities (DPAs) have different views about the practice’s legality, as the GDPR requires that users have a genuine choice between accepting or declining consent. This depends on whether users have realistic alternatives to the ad-supported free version when they want to withhold consent.

Pay-or-consent models are, for example, illegal in Belgium 7  but legal in France 8 . However, the French data protection authority imposes strict conditions. Users must have an alternative if they do not want to pay, and the payment must be appropriate. The economic rationale behind this payment is that digital firms have the right to be compensated for the advertising revenue they lose because they are unable to offer personalised advertising that relies on trackers that track the user’s web activity. The CJEU 9  and the DMA (Recitals 36 and 37 DMA) also consider that a paid version is legal if users who decline consent can access an equivalent service for an appropriate payment.

The Existence of Alternatives

The first question authorities will have to answer is whether the ad-free paid version constitutes a realistic alternative to the ad-supported free version. Empirical studies have found that the answer is no. In a survey of 11,151 respondents (Akman, 2022), only 9 percent were willing to pay to continue using Facebook, were it to start charging a €5 monthly fee for the same quality service. Akman (2022) also found that 42 percent dislike being targeted by advertising, while 46 percent dislike data collection based on their activities, but are nevertheless unwilling to pay for ad-free services. Only 7 percent and 10 percent, respectively, would rather pay a fee for ad-free services, or have ad-funded services collect data on their activities. The upshot is that most users will not pay, irrespective of the amount, even for a higher quality ad-free version. Accordingly, the paid version is unlikely to be a realistic alternative for most users because in practice they will not pay.

A second question is whether competing services, including, in relation to Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok and BeReal, constitute realistic alternatives to the ad-supported free version. The answer to this will depend, first, on whether the competing services offer a free version with the ability for the user to accept or refuse consent. Second, it will depend on whether Meta users face barriers to switching due to factors including functionality, size of the user base, network effects and the ability to move data and their contacts to a competing service effortlessly and in a timely way. Two scenarios are possible:

  1. If users face switching barriers, users who are unwilling to pay in practice will have no choice but to use Meta’s ad-supported free version. This will leave them facing consent as the only option for access to Meta’s ad-supported free version. Users could also stop using Meta services, but they would lose their connection with friends/followers. It is unlikely that users will stop using Meta’s services if they use these services as the main gateway to connect with their followers. Accordingly, the ad-supported free version will unlikely be legal.
  2. If users do not face barriers to switching, they might switch to competing services. The latter will compete to attract users who want to switch. New entrants might even appear on the market. Newcomers will likely offer only a free version of their services to encourage user enrolment. Existing alternatives might propose paid versions of their services to diversify their revenue streams, alongside a free version that enables users to accept or refuse consent to attract users unwilling to consent to Meta’s ad-supported free service. In this scenario, the ad-supported free version will likely be legal. The Meta pay or consent offer might even facilitate the DMA contestability objective of easing entry barriers, as it might incentivise Meta users to switch to competing providers. However, this scenario is highly hypothetical as users might not be able to fully move from Meta’s services to competing providers because of Meta’s position as a main gateway for billions of users and businesses.

The Consequences of the Absence of Genuine Choice

It is up to the DPAs and the Commission to define whether the ability to pay for Meta’s ad-free version, or to use competing services constitutes sufficient alternatives if users want to withhold consent. If the answer is no because, in practice, users will not pay and will not switch because of high barriers to switching, then the ad-supported free version is unlikely to be legal under the GDPR and the DMA, as consent is the only choice for those wanting to access the ad-supported free version.

In particular, the DMA explicitly prohibits gatekeepers from subverting the user’s autonomy to choose (Article 13(6) DMA), which is likely to be the case if users can only accept consent. If users have no genuine choice, Meta will still be able to offer an ad-free paid version. But, if Meta wants to keep its ad-supported free version, it will have to ensure that the ad-supported version provides a choice between accepting and declining consent, similar to today’s ‘accept-or-decline’ offer, as opposed to the pay-or-consent offer.


Akman, P. (2022) ‘A Web of Paradoxes: Empirical Evidence on Online Platform Users and Implications for Competition and Regulation in Digital Markets’, Virginia Law and Business Review 16(2), available at

Footnotes (full list)

[1] B6-22/16 Facebook, 6 February 2019; see

[2] See Data Protection Commission press release of 4 January 2023Data Protection Commission Announces Conclusion of Two Inquiries into Meta Ireland

[3] See Datatilsynet press release of 31 October 2023, Datatilsynets vedtak mot Meta utvides til EU/EØS og gjøres permanent’ (in Norwegian),, and European Data Protection Board statement of 1 November 2023, ‘EDPB Urgent Binding Decision on processing of personal data for behavioural advertising by Meta

[4] C-252/21 Meta Platforms and Others, ECLI:EU:C:2023:537, 4 July 2023, para. 1117.

[5] European Commission press release of 6 September 2023Commission Designates Six Gatekeepers Under the Digital Markets Act

[6] Meta, Facebook and Instagram to Offer Subscription for No Ads in Europe, 30 October 2023,

[7] Data Protection Authority press release of 20 October 2023, ‘L’APD publie une checklist pour une utilisation correcte des cookies’,

[8] Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés press release of 16 May 2022Cookie walls : La CNIL Publie des Premiers Critères d’évaluation

[9] C-252/21 Meta Platforms and Others, ECLI:EU:C:2023:537, 4 July 2023, para. 150.


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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. The Rev Kev

    ‘Meta…said it will now offer a paid, ad-free version of its flagship products, Facebook and Instagram, to users who do not want to consent to the use of their data’

    Should I point out the obvious? Zuckerberg has lied his face off in the past with promises that he makes so based on this, as soon as enough people have signed up to the paid, ad-free version he will throttle the free, ad-filled version to make it unusable – and then will start inserting ads into the paid version.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      That, or he’ll take payments for the ad free version and keep collecting and selling user data anyway. How would the vast majority of people even know?

      1. JEHR

        “Users could also stop using Meta services, but they would lose their connection with friends/followers.”

        Such a belief is non-sensical as we always communicated with others before we had so-called “platforms.” In fact, I avoid platforms for the very reason that some people seem to lose their sense of morality and decentness when using them.

        Write letters, use the telephone to talk, even write e-mail messages. Joint a library group, etc., etc.

        1. Oh

          Exactly my thoughts. They can use e-mail or phone to keep in touch. Oh, no. That would be too hard… can’t gossip without e-borg.

          I’m amazed at how many of these web based companies want you to use their apps. Welcome to our world where we’ll farm your info and we won’t lift a finger to input the data. You do all the work and we’ll sell your info! No worries. Your data is safe with us…until it’s not.

          This digital era is a curse on people.

  2. ambrit

    Funny to see Europe leading the way on “freedom” of choice. I would have thought that Peak Neo-liberalism would offer the maximum in “personal autonomy.”
    I’m with the Rev above on this. In my interactions with any business, I have found that the worst case scenario for the consumer is always the end goal of the corporation.
    Cynic that I am, I apply the Maximum Rent Extraction Rule to all commercial exchanges, and have yet to be disappointed in my expectations.

    1. TimH

      You associate Europe with freedom of choice? It’s fallen down the rathole for freedom of speech, at least speech criticising Gov for their actions over Ukraine, Israel/Palestine to name two current affairs. And we have the dirty tricks pulled in the UK encouraging Brexit, sliming J. Corbyn to name two examples there.

      1. ambrit

        Curious point. Perhaps I should differentiate between the European Union and it’s constituent nations, plus the UK.

        1. TimH

          It’s GDPR that’s the root of this so yes, EU. Not the UK, as GDPR no longer applies, although the basics are still in UK law until they change it to entice Meta to relocate from Eire.

  3. Matthew G. Saroff

    I live for the day when senior executives at the criminal enterprise formerly known as Facebook™ are frog marched out of their offices in handcuffs.

  4. Dick Swenson

    What would the practice of current users simply dropping Facebook, and other gossip mechanisms imply for the ai training process? Would the big data collections devolve into static big data dumps thus reducing their value for training?

  5. redleg

    The same argument applies to artists and streaming services. The streaming services effectively don’t pay composers and performers, but there’s nowhere else to go. The entire point of expending resources to release music is for people to listen to that music. Following the advice of the “if you don’t like how streaming services work then leave” folks as a composer or performer means that your music will never be heard. If nobody hears your music, then you can’t book live shows or sell physical records. It’s an all or nothing thing- you take the $0.003 per stream or lose that pittance plus future sales and bookings of all kinds.

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