Meta fined over privacy violations in Australia
Australia has fined social media giant Meta A$20 million ($14 million) for slurping up users’ data without their knowledge using an app called Onavo that was supposed to protect their privacy, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) revealed on Wednesday.
The Federal Court ordered Meta subsidiaries Facebook Israel and Onavo to pay A$10 million ($7 million) each for “engaging in conduct liable to mislead in breach of the Australian Consumer Law,” plus A$400,000 to cover the ACCC’s legal costs.
Facebook marketed Onavo, a free virtual private networking app, on the App Store and Google Play as an app that “helps keep you and your data safe” between 2016 and 2017. VPNs hide the user’s IP address, allowing them to access content that might not be reachable from their area or country and confounding location-specific targeting.
However, it was actually using the app to record users’ location, time, and use of other apps, as well as which websites they visited, in order to use this information for advertising, according to Judge Wendy Abraham.
“The failure to make sufficient disclosures… may have deprived tens of thousands of Australian consumers of the opportunity to make an informed choice about the collection of their data before downloading and/or using Onavo Protect,” Abraham said in the judgment.
She could have fined Meta hundreds of billions of dollars, she pointed out, since Australians downloaded the VPN at least 271,229 times and the country’s consumer protection law carries a fine of $1.1 million per incident, but instead treated it as “a single course of conduct,” observing that the fine “carries with it a sufficient sting to ensure that the penalty amount is not such as to be regarded... as simply an acceptable cost of doing business.” Meta made $116 billion last year.
Meta released a statement emphasizing the ACCC’s own admission that the tech behemoth had never meant to mislead customers, claiming Onavo had “functioned properly as an online security tool” and that the company had “built tools to give people more transparency and control over how their data is used” in recent years.
“We design every new product and feature with privacy in mind,” Meta told Australia’s ABC.
The Federal Court last month ordered Australia’s Information Commissioner and Meta to settle the government’s Cambridge Analytica lawsuit, filed in 2020 after American and British regulators successfully fined the company $5 billion and £500,000 ($647,300) respectively, for deceiving users about how their private data was being handled. Cambridge Analytica infamously harvested the data of millions of Facebook users without their knowledge through a seemingly innocuous quiz app, then used that information to target political ads.