Social media platform Meta has launched its Twitter competitor, Threads, in the UK and US, with a concerted push to get millions of Instagram users to sign up. However, concerns over whether or not the new service will comply with future European Union (EU) law have stymied plans to debut the service across Europe.
Threads officially made its debut on Apple and Google’s app stores (no desktop version for PCs is available for now) at 11pm UK time on Wednesday 5 July, with Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg posting that he believed there should be a “public conversations app with one billion-plus people on it”, something he said Twitter had not yet nailed down.
Although not explicitly described as such by Meta, Threads is widely seen as the latest salvo in Zuckerberg’s increasingly bitter and immature feud with Twitter’s owner, PayPal and Tesla billionaire Elon Musk, who last week rolled out a new rate-limiting policy for Twitter users who refuse to pay a monthly charge for verified status. This policy change was rushed out so hastily that it appeared to effectively cause Twitter to conduct a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack against its own systems.
The idea behind tying the Threads service to Instagram is to lock in rapid growth by making it easy for Instagram users, especially high-profile celebrity and influencer accounts, to log in with their existing usernames and credentials and thus “reserve” their accounts and protect their identities. The likes of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, reality TV star Kim Kardashian and Formula 1 driver Lando Norris have already done so.
According to Instagram, users who sign up for Threads will share their Instagram login information, account ID, name and username, profile information – including photo, biography and links – their Instagram followers and accounts they follow, their age, and their Instagram account status relating to any intellectual property (IP) or community guidelines violations.
In common with other Meta products, it also collects swathes of personal data, including information on health and fitness, finances, contacts, content, browsing history, usage data, diagnostics, purchasing history, location, search history, identifiers and sensitive information.
But it’s the cross-platform functionality that appears to have sunk the European launch of Threads, as sharing user data across different platforms is strictly against the EU’s Digital Markets Act, which, when fully implemented in 2024, could see fines of up to 10% in annual global revenues levied against tech giants that break the rules.
A Meta spokesperson confirmed to Computer Weekly that Threads will not be launched in the European Economic Area (EEA) – which comprises the 27 EU Member States, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway – because of “upcoming regulatory uncertainty”.
The Irish Data Protection Commission, which since Meta’s EU headquarters is in Dublin acts as the lead regulator across the EU on matters concerning it, told the Irish Independent that it has not blocked the EU launch but that it has been in contact with Meta over Threads’ use of data. It said Meta had not prepared Threads for an EU launch.
Also under consideration at Meta may have been a CJEU ruling made earlier this week, which has effectively holed below the waterline its entire legal basis for data processing to serve targeted ads to EU users, and the May 2023 ruling halting it from transferring Facebook user data from the EU to the US, which also saw a fine of €1.2bn imposed by the Irish DPC.
Speaking in the wake of the CJEU’s latest decision, Angel Maldonado, CEO and founder of Empathy.co, which bills itself as a privacy-driven search platform, said the tech giants were operating under a misconception over who owns what data.
“Companies such as Meta like to think that clicking a checkbox means that consumers’ data belongs to them, but given Meta’s overarching foothold on global digital infrastructure with Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram under its wing, it’s simply not enough,” he said. “It’s time to wake up and call these business models for what they are: abusive, obscene and wrong.”
“The European Court of Justice’s decision not only alerts Big Tech companies of the dangers of personalised advertising business models, but the pitfalls of treating consumer data as a commodity that can be mined, exchanged and traded at will.
“This ruling shows the tables are turning in favour of privacy,” said Maldonado. “Common sense always prevails, and with regulatory bodies circling Meta, they’ll soon have to start playing within the bounds of fair play. Consumers must have the ability to hold, protect and control their own data before it gets processed for any other means.”
This story was updated at 13:35 BST on Thursday 6 July 2023 to reflect the contents of a statement from Meta