Australia sues Meta for ads promoting cryptocurrency scams

The Aussie watchdog says the ads promoted crypto scams by using photos of prominent Australian figures.

Bitcoin Scattered Gold Coins Falling 3d Coin, Cryptocurrencies explosion, Golden bitcoins, Golden Bi...

An Australian antitrust watchdog is suing Meta for — what else? — failing to stop cryptocurrency scammers from utilizing its advertising platform. To make matters significantly worse, the scammers in question are actually using photos of high-profile Australians to pull in clicks.

The lawsuit, which was filed by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) on Friday, claims that Facebook “aided and abetted or knowingly concerned in false or misleading conduct and representations by the advertisers,” according to Reuters. The crux of the case is quite simple: Facebook reviews every ad that goes up on its platform, which means it should be held responsible for anything that slips through the cracks.

“It is alleged that Meta was aware… scam ads were being displayed on Facebook but did not take sufficient steps to address the issue,” Rod Sims, ACCC head, said in a statement.

The scammy ads themselves are, unfortunately enough, not at all surprising — Facebook has a proven track record of allowing ads that should by no means exist on its platform. More surprising is that a government watchdog is taking action against Meta for it.

How many times must we do this? — The ACCC’s lawsuit takes care to mention all the mechanisms Facebook has in place specifically to weed out ads like this that obviously violate its policies. The ads used images of prominent Australian figures — politicians, TV hosts, and business execs — to coax users into visiting fake news sites.

Users were then contacted by scammers to deposit funds in crypto. One customer reportedly lost more than $480,000 in the scheme. Meta, as usual, won’t up to any culpability here. “We will review the recent filing by the ACCC and intend to defend the proceedings,” a Meta spokesperson said.

The number of times Facebook has been caught red-handed in allowing misleading or scammy ads is nearly uncountable. As recently as last August, Facebook ads were found promoting veterinary drugs as COVID treatments, for example. Or how about the time Trump’s campaign ran thousands of ads using doctored photos of Joe Biden?

Setting precedent? — Facebook has been called out plenty of times for breaking its own moderation promises, but it’s much rarer for a government agency to take concrete legal action for its ads. There are exceptions to this rule, such as when various advertisements of Russian origin attempted to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. That particular government investigation was intense and thorough.

Federal U.S. investigations of Facebook and its parent company Meta have largely focused on antitrust violations or other finance-based allegations. Though U.S. regulators like the FTC will likely follow along with this advertising suit, it’s much less certain that the organization will take cues from the ACCC for its own cases against Meta.