The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) has instituted proceedings in the federal court against Facebook, Inc. and two of its subsidiaries.
The ACCC alleges that the companies displayed false, misleading or deceptive conduct when promoting Facebook’s Onavo Protect mobile app to Australian consumers.
Onavo Protect was a free downloadable software application that provided a virtual private network (VPN) service.
The ACCC alleges that, 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.
The ACCC further alleges that Facebook said the data would not be used for any purpose other than providing Onavo Protect’s products.
In addition, the ACCC alleges that Onavo Protect collected, aggregated and used significant amounts of users’ personal activity data for Facebook’s commercial benefit.
According to the ACCC, 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.
This data, the ACCC alleges, 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,” 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.
“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.”
The Onavo Protect website stated that the app would “save, measure and protect” users’ mobile data, while advertisements on Facebook’s website and app allegedly included statements such as “Keep it secret. Keep it safe… Onavo Protect, from Facebook”.
A Facebook company spokesperson said the company had been clear about the information it collects through Onavo Protect.
“When people downloaded Onavo Protect, we were always clear about the information we collect and how it is used,” the spokesperson told B&T.
“We’ve cooperated with the ACCC’s investigation into this matter to date. We will review the recent filing by the ACCC and will continue to defend our position in response to this recent filing.”
The ACCC is seeking declarations and pecuniary penalties. Facebook could not provide further comment at this time as this issue is now before the court.
Featured image source: Facebook/OnavoProtect
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