(CTN News) – It has been ordered by an Australian court that the owner of Facebook, Meta Platforms (META.O), must pay fines totaling A$20 million ($14 million) for collecting user data through a smartphone application that was advertised as a way to protect privacy without disclosing the activities it undertakes.
As part of its judgment, the Federal Court of Australia also ordered Meta, through its subsidiaries Facebook Israel and Onavo, to pay A$400,000 in legal costs to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which brought the civil action against Meta.
Meta has been able to close one strand of its legal issues in Australia as a result of the fine, which related to how Meta handled the data of its users after a global scandal broke over the use of data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica in the U.S. election of 2016.
Despite this, Meta still faces a civil lawsuit filed by the Australian Office of the Information Commissioner over its dealings with Cambridge Analytica in the country.
The judgment on Wednesday concerned a virtual private network (VPN) service offered by the company called Facebook back in early 2016 to late 2017, Onavo, which the company described as a way to maintain the privacy of personal information.
The VPN obscures the identity of an internet user by giving their computer a different online address, which masks their true identity.
In a written judgment, the judge Wendy Abraham stated that Facebook used Onavo to collect users’ location, time, and frequency through other smartphone apps, as well as websites they visited for its own advertising purposes, according to a court document.
Abraham wrote, “In the absence of sufficient disclosures, it may have deprived tens of thousands of Australian consumers the chance to make an informed choice about the collection and use of their data before downloading or using Onavo Protect,” he added in his letter.
According to her, the court could have fined Meta hundreds of billions of dollars since Australians downloaded the app 271,220 times, and each violation of consumer law was punishable by a fine of $1 million in their absence, however “the contraventions can be characterised as a single course of conduct”.
It is clear that the fine was agreed upon by both sides but “carries with it a sufficient sting to ensure that the penalty amount isn’t taken as a cost of doing business or simply considered as part of the cost of doing business”, writes the judge.
It was reported that Meta made global revenues of $116 billion last year, and in a statement issued this week, the company said that the judge had admitted that it had never sought to mislead its customers, and that “over the last several years, we have created tools to give people more transparency and control over how their data is being used”.