Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Under the Guise of Security, Facebook is Promoting Their VPN in Their iOS App

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

Marketing Onavo within Facebook itself could lead to a boost in users for the VPN app, which promises to warn users of malicious websites and keep information secure – like bank account and credit card numbers – as you browse. But Facebook didn’t buy Onavo for its security protections.

Instead, Onavo’s VPN allow Facebook to monitor user activity across apps, giving Facebook a big advantage in terms of spotting new trends across the larger mobile ecosystem. For example, Facebook gets an early heads up about apps that are becoming breakout hits; it can tell which are seeing slowing user growth; it sees which apps’ new features appear to be resonating with their users, and much more.

This data has already helped Facebook in a number of ways, most notably in its battle with Snapchat. At The WSJ reported last August, Facebook could tell that Instagram’s launch of Stories – a Snapchat-like feature – was working to slow Snapchat’s user growth, before the company itself even publicly disclosed this fact.

Think about that: Facebook has one of the largest platforms in the world, and is using that influence to promote a service that they control to spot and preemptively eliminate potential competitors. The reason they’re able to do all of these things is because of their size and dominance.

I understand the reluctance by many regulators and industry observers to say that Facebook ought to be broken up into smaller, unaffiliated companies, but I’m struggling to see many other ways to keep the company’s influence in check. Largely ignoring it, as has been done so far, is bad for competition. Even if you ignore potential anticompetitive issues, there’s still a question of whether users of Facebook’s VPN are adequately aware of how the company accessed and uses their data.