One of the many apps acquired by Facebook is called Onavo. On its face, Onavo is a virtual private network (VPN) app that routes all of your device’s internet traffic through a specific web address, masking where the end user, you, is connecting from. In general, VPNs are good for privacy-conscious internet users.
But Onavo’s real value to Facebook is that it lets the company observe its users’ entire web-surfing habits, not just Facebook usage. That’s invaluable to Facebook, which has in recent years stopped innovating and started copying upstart apps that threaten its popularity. Facebook uses Onavo as a sort of early warning system. As AllThingsD wrote in 2013, when Facebook acquired Onavo, “Facebook can use that download and user activity data to spot trends in apps that are up and coming, potentially spotting at a very early stage the types of apps that are gaining traction with the public.” This is still Facebook’s strategy.
This week, the Onavo Protect app was delisted from Apple’s App Store, according to The Wall Street Journal. The iPhone maker cited violation of its data-collection policies as the reason for the delisting. A source told the Journal that “Apple informed Facebook that Onavo also violated a part of its developer agreement that prevents apps from using data in ways that go beyond what is directly relevant to the app or to provide advertising.”
It’s hard to see how hoovering up traffic data in aggregate and using it to stomp out potential competitors helps Facebook deliver a better VPN app to its users. Facebook voluntarily removed the app after discussions. It’s yet another indication that, even in the face of public pressure and questions over its business practices, the only legislation that Facebook truly fears is Apple’s developer policies.