Australia Sues Facebook Over User Data, Echoing US Antitrust Case

Facebook acquired VPN App Onavo in 2013 for $200 million to gather data about what people’s phone activities.

2 min read
Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook acquired VPN App Onavo in 2013 for $200 million to gather data about what people’s phone activities.

Australia's Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) on Wednesday, 16 December, sued Facebook for false, misleading or deceptive conduct while promoting its Onavo Protect app to Australian consumers.

Onavo Protect was a free downloadable software application providing a virtual private network (VPN) service. Facebook acquired Onavo in 2013 for a reported $200 million to use its VPN app to gather data about what people were doing on their phones.

Following the scandalous revelation where the company was found to have been collecting data from teenagers using the "Facebook Research" app, the social networking giant ended its unpaid market research programmes and took the Onavo VPN app off the app stores.

According to the ACCC, between 1 February 2016 to October 2017, Facebook and its subsidiaries Facebook Israel Ltd and Onavo Inc misled Australian consumers by representing that the Onavo Protect app would keep users’ personal activity data private, protected and secret.

Facebook had said that the "data would not be used for any purpose other than providing Onavo Protect's products".

The ACCC alleged that Onavo Protect collected, aggregated and used significant amounts of users’ personal activity data for Facebook’s commercial benefit.

"This included details about Onavo Protect users' internet and app activity, such as records of every app they accessed and the number of seconds each day they spent using those apps," ACCC said.

This data was used to support Facebook's market research activities, including identifying potential future acquisition targets.

"Through Onavo Protect, Facebook was collecting and using the very detailed and valuable personal activity data of thousands of Australian consumers for its own commercial purposes, which we believe is completely contrary to the promise of protection, secrecy and privacy that was central to Facebook's promotion of this app," said ACCC Chair Rod Sims.

"Consumers often use VPN services because they care about their online privacy, and that is what this Facebook product claimed to offer. In fact, Onavo Protect channelled significant volumes of their personal activity data straight back to Facebook," he added.

Sim said that the conduct deprived Australian consumers of the opportunity to make an informed choice about the collection and use of their personal activity data by Facebook and Onavo.

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