Facebook Sued By Australia For Onavo Protect Data Gathering

Australia files lawsuit against Facebook over its data collection practices associated with its discontinued Onavo Protect VPN app

Facebook is facing trouble down under, as countries around the world continue to tighten restrictions and regulations governing big tech firms.

The Australian competition regulator, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), on Wednesday announced that it is suing Facebook over its promotion of an app designed to ‘protect’ users data.

But the ACCC alleges that in fact Facebook used the mobile ‘Onavo Protect’ app instead to collect user data without permission.

VPN spyware?

Facebook had acquired Israel-based Onavo back in October 2013, and in the subsequent years its free Onavo Protect VPN was apparently frequently classified as spyware.

Facebook pulled Onavo Protect from the iOS App Store in August 2018 over violations of Apple’s policy forbidding apps from collecting data on the usage of other apps. In February 2019 it also announced that the Android version of Protect would be retired.

But the Australian regulator believes Facebook and two of its subsidiaries (Facebook Israel Ltd and Onavo Inc) are responsible for “false, misleading or deceptive conduct when promoting Facebook’s Onavo Protect mobile app to Australian consumers.”

The ACCC alleges that Australian consumers were misled by the two firms “representing that the Onavo Protect app would keep users’ personal activity data private, protected and secret, and that the data would not be used for any purpose other than providing Onavo Protect’s products.”

According to the Aussie regulator, “Onavo Protect collected, aggregated and used significant amounts of users’ personal activity data for Facebook’s commercial benefit.”

This allegedly 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.

The ACCC alleges that Facebook then used this data to support its 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,” ACCC Chair Rod Sims said.

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

“We believe 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,” Sims added.

The ACCC said it was seeking an unspecified fine from Facebook for promoting its VPN as a way for people to protect their data, while secretly using the information to pick targets for commercial acquisitions.

Legal worries

The Australian action comes on top of that country’s recent decision to force companies such as Facebook and Google to pay local publishers for news content carried on their platforms.

And Facebook is also facing a major breakup challenge in its home country of the United States.

Earlier this month Facebook was hit with two separate antitrust lawsuits from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and a coalition of attorneys general from 48 states and territories.

Facebook is accused of alleged anti-competitive conduct by buying up rivals and stifle competition, and faces a significant risk of having to divest itself of Instagram and WhatsApp.