Australia sues Facebook over its use of Onavo to snoop

Natasha Lomas
·3-min read

Yet more trouble brewing for Facebook: Australia's Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is suing the tech giant over its use, in 2016 and 2017, of the Onavo VPN app to spy on users for commercial purposes.

The ACCC's case accuses Facebook of false, misleading or deceptive conduct toward thousands of Australian consumers, after it had promoted the Onavo Protect app -- saying it would keep users personal activity data private, protected and secret and not use it for any other purpose, when it was being used to gather data to help Facebook's business.

“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 in a statement.

“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,” Sims added.

The ACCC alleges that between February 1, 2016 to October 2017, Facebook and its subsidiaries Facebook Israel Ltd and Onavo, Inc. misled Australian consumers by misrepresenting the function of the free-to-download Onavo Protect app.

The regulator says it's seeking declarations and pecuniary penalties.

Reached for comment on the suit, a Facebook spokeswoman said: When people downloaded Onavo Protect, we were always clear about the information we collect and how it is used."

"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," she added.

Facebook announced last year that it would shut the Onavo Protect app -- after a backlash over how it had used the VPN app which it acquired back in 2013 to snoop on users.

Internal Facebook documents from a legal discovery process -- made public in 2018 by the UK parliament after it seized them as part of an enquiry into online disinformation -- show the tech giant using Onavo charts as a source of commercial intelligence to understand which third party apps its users were downloading and engaging with.

Data gleaned via Onavo revealed WhatsApp to be a competitive threat to Facebook's Messenger app. Shortly after gaining this market insight Facebook shelled out $19BN to acquire the rival messaging app.

The tech giant is now facing a massive antitrust case on home soil, where earlier this month 46 states accused it of suppressing competition through monopolistic business practices -- with the acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp cited as prominent examples.

The FTC and US lawmakers are calling for the unwinding of those mergers and the breaking up of Facebook's social empire as a necessity.

Elsewhere, Facebook is being sued in Germany -- where the Federal Cartel Office (FCO) is pressing a case that could put limits on how it can combine data between difference services it owns.

This month the FCO also announced it's investigating Facebook tying usage of its latest Oculus VR kit to having a Facebook account -- after it said new Oculus users must have a Facebook account to use the kit. This summer Facebook also said it would end support for existing Oculus accounts by 2023.