From Australia to the European Union, data experts and privacy organizations are expressing their concerns over Google’s plan to acquire Fitbit, a company that produces and sells health-tracking technologies.
The move would cement Google’s digital dominance at the expense of consumers, critics say.
In November, Google announced that it wanted to buy the wearables company Fitbit for $2.1 billion, mainly as a way to compete with Apple and Samsung in the market of fitness trackers and smartwatches. But the move almost immediately raised privacy and antitrust concerns.
Fitbit currently boasts over 28 million users around the world, which means that along with the company, Google would also acquire a large amount of health data that would have at its disposal to use as it pleases. Google promised the data won’t be used for advertising purposes, but regulators and civil society are skeptical and they’re asking for more transparency on what will happen with the data.
Two weeks ago, the European Commission was formally asked to decide on the merger. The antitrust regulators have until July 20 to decide if they allow the deal to go ahead. If that’s not the case, a four-month investigation will have to be carried out to look further into the move.
But some have already made up their mind on the matter. Privacy International, a UK civil society organization, said in a statement that the merger should be blocked and called the EU to block it.
Google has become too big and already has too much market power, they argued, claiming the company is now trying to access sensitive health data.
“While big isn’t always a bad thing, abusing this dominance violates the law. The value of personal data increases as more and more data is combined with it, and this incentivizes companies to pursue business strategies aimed at collecting as much data as possible,” the NGO argued.
The EU classifies health data as special category data, Privacy International said. This means that health data is granted a very high level of protection due to what they can reveal about our everyday habits and the potential consequences (such as discrimination) if the data is used. The merger would allow Google to access “our most intimate data” and profit from that, Privacy International says.
For Ioannis Kouvakas, Legal Officer at the NGO, this is something that has wide and far-reaching implications, no matter if we are Fitbit users or not.
“Can we trust a company with a shady competition and data protection past with our most intimate data? We must not let big tech once again sacrifice our wellbeing,” he argued.
A shady story with data
Google actually doesn’t have a clean record on the use of data. Last year, the company was fined $57 million by the French data regulator for a breach of the EU’s data protection rules. The regulator said Google had a “lack of transparency, inadequate information, and lack of valid consent.”
The French regulator said it judged that people were “not sufficiently informed” about how Google collected data to personalize advertising. Google didn’t obtain clear consent to process data because “essential information” was “disseminated across several documents,” CNIL said.
This is used as an argument to block the current merger with Fitbit, not only in Europe but also in Australia, where the antitrust regulator (ACCC) warned the merger would give Google too much of people’s data and hurt the competition. It’s the first regulator to officially voice its concerns about the deal.
“Buying Fitbit will allow Google to build an even more comprehensive set of user data, further cementing its position and raising barriers to entry to potential rivals,” ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said in a statement. “User data available to Google has made it so valuable to advertisers that it faces only limited competition.”
In the US, the Justice Department said in December that it will review the plans by Google, having already opened a larger investigation into Google in September. US Watchdog groups like Public Citizen and the Center for Digital Democracy have urged antitrust enforcers to block the deal.
A Google spokesperson rejected criticism over the use of data.
“Throughout this process, we have been clear about our commitment not to use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads and our responsibility to provide people with choice and control,” the spokesperson told Euronews.
This is a pressing reminder that we need to carefully consider what role tech companies play in our society — and we need to do it fast. More often than not, technology changes much faster than society itself, and consumers risk being left behind. We all want to enjoy the benefits that technology can bring us, but as we’re already starting to see, the consequences can be dire if we’re not careful.