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Meta subsidiaries fined $20 million for misleading consumers about data collection and use

The recent AU$20 million fine imposed on Facebook Israel and its subsidiary Onavo by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) serves as a stark reminder that privacy policies are not an infallible shield against regulatory scrutiny. The decision of Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) v Meta Platforms Inc [2023] FCA 842 underscores the growing importance of transparent data practices and ethical handling of user information in today’s digital landscape.

In the case brought forward by the ACCC, Facebook and Onavo, as subsidiaries of Meta Inc, were found guilty of misleading data practices that infringed upon user privacy through the use of a VPN service of Onavo Protect. The VPN was advertised to protect users’ personal information when in fact Facebook Israel and Onavo collected extensive user data from mobile devices and aggregated the data for Meta to be used for commercial purposes such as advertising, marketing, improving products and services, and developing commercial strategies.

Despite having privacy policies in place, the Federal Court viewed this as a breach of the Australian Consumer Law as the companies failed to adhere to their commitments and engaged in practices that did not align with user expectations. This landmark ruling highlights that mere legal jargon in privacy policies is insufficient; businesses must back their promises with genuine efforts to protect user data.

Privacy policies have long been viewed as a contractual agreement between companies and users, outlining how data will be collected, used, and safeguarded. However, the efficacy of these policies is under increasing scrutiny, as regulators and consumers demand more than superficial compliance. The Federal Court’s fine sends a strong signal that the era of “tick-the-box” privacy policies is over, emphasising the need for companies to take concrete steps to uphold user privacy.

To avoid falling into a similar trap, businesses must adopt a proactive approach to data privacy. Transparency should be at the forefront, with companies clearly explaining how data is collected, processed, and shared. Simplifying language within privacy policies and providing user-friendly explanations can bridge the gap between legal requirements and user comprehension.

Furthermore, companies should implement robust data protection measures, regularly audit data practices, and invest in employee training to ensure compliance. Prioritising user consent and providing options for data control empowers users to make informed choices about their information.

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