Meta relents to EU, allows unlinking of Facebook and Instagram accounts

Meta will allow some Facebook and Instagram users to unlink their accounts as part of the platform’s efforts to comply with the European Union’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) ahead of enforcement starting March 1.

In a blog, Meta’s competition and regulatory director, Tim Lamb, wrote that Instagram and Facebook users in the EU, the European Economic Area, and Switzerland would be notified in the “next few weeks” about “more choices about how they can use” Meta’s services and features, including new opportunities to limit data-sharing across apps and services.

Most significantly, users can choose to either keep their accounts linked or “manage their Instagram and Facebook accounts separately so that their information is no longer used across accounts.” Up to this point, linking user accounts had provided Meta with more data to more effectively target ads to more users. The perk of accessing data on Instagram’s widening younger user base, TechCrunch noted, was arguably the $1 billion selling point explaining why Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012.

Also announced today, users protected by the DMA will soon be able to separate their Facebook Messenger, Marketplace, and Gaming accounts. However, doing so will limit some social features available in some of the standalone apps.

While Messenger users choosing to disconnect the chat service from their Facebook accounts will still “be able to use Messenger’s core service offering such as private messaging and chat, voice and video calling,” Marketplace users making that same choice will have to email sellers and buyers, rather than using Facebook’s messenger service. And unlinked Gaming app users will only be able to play single-player games, severing their access to social gaming otherwise supported by linking the Gaming service to their Facebook social networks.

While Meta may have had choices other than depriving users unlinking accounts of some features, Meta didn’t really have a choice in allowing newly announced options to unlink accounts. The DMA specifically requires that very large platforms designated as “gatekeepers” give users the “specific choice” of opting out of sharing personal data across a platform’s different core services or across any separate services that the gatekeepers manage.

Without gaining “specific” consent, gatekeepers will no longer be allowed to “combine personal data from the relevant core platform service with personal data from any further core platform services” or “cross-use personal data from the relevant core platform service in other services provided separately by the gatekeeper,” the DMA says. The “specific” requirement is designed to block platforms from securing consent at sign-up, then hoovering up as much personal data as possible as new services are added in an endless pursuit of advertising growth.

As defined under the General Data Protection Regulation, the EU requiring “specific” consent stops platforms from gaining user consent for broadly defined data processing by instead establishing “the need for granularity,” so that platforms always seek consent for each “specific” data “processing purpose.”

“This is an important ‘safeguard against the gradual widening or blurring of purposes for which data is processed, after a data subject has agreed to the initial collection of the data,’” the European Data Protection Supervisor explained in public comments describing “commercial surveillance and data security practices that harm consumers” provided at the request of the FTC in 2022.

According to Meta’s help page, once users opt out of sharing data between apps and services, Meta will “stop combining your info across these accounts” within 15 days “after you’ve removed them.” However, all “previously combined info would remain combined.”