Facebook faces trouble in Europe—and Meta wants you to know about it. Every three months since June 2018, the company has used its financial results to warn that it could be forced to stop running Facebook and Instagram across the continent—potentially pulling its apps from millions of people and thousands of businesses—if it can’t send data between the EU and the US.
Whether Meta’s bluffing will become clear soon enough.
Data regulators are on the verge of making a historic ruling in a years-long case, and they are expected to say Facebook’s data transfers across the Atlantic should be blocked. For years, Meta has fought against European privacy activists over how data is sent to the US, with courts ruling multiple times that European data isn’t properly protected and can potentially be snooped on by the NSA and other US intelligence agencies.
While the case focuses on Meta, it has widespread ramifications, potentially impacting thousands of businesses across Europe that rely upon the services of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and more. At the same time, US and European negotiators are scrambling to finalize a long-awaited new data-sharing deal that will limit what information US intelligence agencies can get their hands on. If negotiators can’t get it right, people’s privacy will remain at risk and billions of dollars of trade will be put in jeopardy.
At the start of July, the Irish Data Protection Commission, Facebook’s main data regulator in Europe, issued a draft decision that would block Meta from sending data across the Atlantic. While the specifics of that draft decision aren’t known, if it is enacted, it could create a Facebook blackout across Europe.
Under the GDPR, Europe’s data law, countries across the continent get 30 days to scrutinize Ireland’s Meta decision and respond with any potential changes or complaints. That time is now up. A spokesperson for the Irish regulator says “some” objections have been received from a “small” number of other countries and it is working to address these. Experts say these are likely to be minor points of law, rather than overturning the entire decision.
So, how likely is it that Meta will actually pull its services from Europe? In reality, the chances are probably pretty slim. Meta has said it has “no desire” to leave the continent, going as far as publishing a blog post titled “Meta Is Absolutely Not Threatening to Leave Europe.” Europe’s 30-plus countries are a large market for Meta, and stopping services, even temporarily, could be costly. (A close comparison is when the company briefly banned news posts in Australia in early 2021, following a row with publishers.) While Meta may not leave Europe, it may have to make changes to how it stores and transfers data once the final decision from the Irish regulator is published, although there is no set timeline. It may also face a fine.