On Wednesday, officials in Ireland fined Meta — that is, Facebook and Instagram’s parent company — more than $400 million after finding the tech giant had violated European Union policies around how tech companies retrieve and handle user data.
And there could be more trouble ahead for the social media giant.
The central issue revolves around Facebook and Instagram relying on users’ data to bombard the users with personalized ads. Those wildly invasive ads are a major source of income for both (and most) social platforms.
But Ireland is one of several countries in the E.U. that has strict rules around whether and how social media platforms and other tech companies access and deploy users’ private information. Ireland’s whopping fine stems from two complaints filed against Meta in 2018, both of which claimed the company “forced” users to agree to their data being used for personalized ads.
An investigation by Ireland’s Data Protection Commission found that Meta had changed its policy around personalized ads, going from asking for users’ consent to deploy their data for targeted advertising to requiring that consent as a contractual condition for using Facebook and Instagram. This, the commission said, violated the General Data Protection Regulation, a set of rules the E.U. implemented in 2018 that the coalition touts as “the toughest privacy and security law in the world.”
In a blog post published Wednesday, Meta said: “We strongly believe our approach respects GDPR, and we’re therefore disappointed by these decisions and intend to appeal both the substance of the rulings and the fines.”
The company claimed to have relied on a “Contractual Necessity” legal basis to show personalized ads, arguing that it’s a “necessary and essential part” of the experience on Facebook and Instagram. And in a line seemingly aimed at advertisers, Meta said the commission's rulings “do not prevent personalised advertising on our platform.”
Needless to say, scraping users’ personal information and selling it to advertisers is central to Meta’s business, no matter how eerily intrusive it is. In 2021, Apple implemented major changes to its mobile operating systems that allow people to prevent advertisers from tracking them on Apple devices. Not having that information has significantly hurt Meta’s advertising business, which company officials openly acknowledge.
And keep in mind, the United States hasn’t even truly begun to tackle the issue of manipulative promotional tactics on social media. But there are growing calls to do so, and if the ultimate result mirrors the privacy measures the E.U. put in place, Meta could be in for a lot more trouble.