Probe into Google-Fitbit $2.1 bn deal shows EU wising up to data value

The EU authority will investigate how Google could bolster its ‘data advantage’ in online advertising with information it collects from Fitbit fitness


Google | Fitbit | Google Antitrust

Silicon Valley giants used to snap up smaller tech firms at will, safe in the knowledge that antitrust regulators rarely prevented them from expanding into new industries.

The European Commission showed on Tuesday that those days are gone, opening an in-depth probe into Google’s $2.1 billion takeover of Fitbit — an investigation that focuses on the potentially huge value of its trove of customer data.

The EU authority will investigate how Google could bolster its “data advantage” in online advertising with information it collects from Fitbit fitness. The probe, which has an initial December 9 deadline, raises the risk of a potential veto.

The commission “seems to be finally seizing a unique opportunity to stand up to digital dominance that seeks to exploit our most intimate data for profit”, said Ioannis Kouvakas of Privacy International, which lobbied for a longer EU probe. The deal would strengthen Google’s access to health data “at what might be a critical point for the development of this increasingly important market”.

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Regulators are increasingly suspicious of tech giants’ takeovers, aiming to prevent the already powerful firms from conquering innovative new markets where data is often the most prized asset. Antitrust authorities have been criticised for waving through deals such as Facebook’s takeover of Instagram and even Google’s 2007 bid for display advertising platform DoubleClick.

The EU’s wide focus on online ads clashes with Google’s view that the “deal is about devices, not data” and that it’s adding a service — wearable health devices — where it currently isn’t active and faces plenty of rivals from Apple, Samsung Electronics, Garmin and others.

Google sought to avoid an extended EU review by promising to create a so-called data silo to keep some Fitbit data separate from other Google datasets that built profiles of internet users to serve them ads they might find attractive. EU regulators said they rejected the offer because it didn’t address their concerns and didn’t include all Fitbit data that could be used for advertising.

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The commission “is getting wise to big tech’s platitudes,” said Johnny Ryan, a senior fellow at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, who helped web browser Brave to file privacy complaints over Google’s data collection and advertising practices.

“Google may have given assurances to silo the data it acquires from Fitbit, but previous assurances have been of little value. After Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick, a huge online advertising firm, in 2007 it promised to never combine DoubleClick data with its own. But in January 2016 it did precisely this,” Ryan said.