Europe clears Google-Fitbit with a ten-year ban on utilizing well being information for adverts – TechCrunch

Europe has given Google’s $ 2.1 billion takeover of fitness wearable maker Fitbit a green light. A number of conditions were applied to alleviate competition concerns that after months of government scrutiny of the contract, an important cache of health and wellness data was being gobbled up.

While Google announced its plan to buy Fitbit over a year ago and didn’t notify the Commission of the deal until June 15, 2020 – which means it took Europe half a year to give cautious approval. It’s now also facing formal antitrust charges on its home turf – from more than one angle (though not related to Fitbit).

As part of the EU approval for “Gitbit”, Google has promised not to use the Fitbit Data from users in the European Economic Area for advertising targeting purposes for a period of ten years.

A technical separation is maintained between health and wellness data, which is collected via Fitbit wearables in a data silo that is separate from other Google data.

It is also committed to ensuring that regional users have the “effective choice” of using health and wellness data stored in their Google Account or Fitbit account by other Google services such as Google Search, Google Maps , Google Assistant, to allow or deny. and YouTube. But it will be interesting to see how much dark pattern design is applied there.

Interestingly, the Commission says it may decide to extend the ten-year advertising obligation for another ten years – if such an extension can be justified.

It should also be noted that clearance is contingent on full compliance with all obligations, the implementation of which is monitored by a trustee who must be appointed before the transaction can be completed.

This yet-to-be-appointed person will have what the Commission calls “far-reaching powers” – including access to “Google records, staff, facilities or technical information”.

The EU regulatory authorities are therefore following a “trust but verify” approach in order to put this big steamroller into operation for the technical merger.

There are other competitive commitments as well.

Here, Google has agreed to maintain access to the data of Fitbit users via a web API without charging third-party developers for access (of course subject to user consent).

It has also agreed on a number of commitments related to accessing competing wearable manufacturers to Android APIs. There will continue to be free licensing for all core functions of competing devices that are required for connection to the dominant smartphone operating system Android.

According to the commission, improvements to the device functionality are regulated under the agreement. Therefore, competing wearables manufacturers should continue to be able to innovate without taking the risk of creating a better / more powerful device that will result in their being excluded from the Android ecosystem.

Google also needs to keep API support in the Android Open Source Project version of its mobile platform.

Another concession that the commission got from Google during this half year of investigation and negotiation is to say that it will not try to bypass the requirement to support the rivals’ kit that is going through the API on Android accesses by impairing the user experience (for example, by displaying warnings or error messages).

That is, frankly, a rather dysfunctional signal for regulatory approval to be sent. And it underscores the distrust of how the Google business works.

This in turn raises the existential question for EU regulators of why they allow themselves to bend down and let Google Fitbit on. Unsurprisingly, the commission’s PR sounds a little defensive. The EU legislator writes that the decision will not affect “the Commission’s efforts to ensure fair and competitive markets in the digital sector, in particular through the recently proposed Digital Markets Act” (DMA). .

It should also be noted that the Monitoring Trustee has the right to share reports that it makes available to the Commission with Google’s lead data protection officer, the Irish Data Protection Commission. (Given the massive backlog of tech-related cases – including a series of investigations into other elements of Google’s business – Mountain View is unlikely to get any extra sleepless nights.)

The commission also says that the commitments secured by Google “include a rapid dispute resolution mechanism that third parties can rely on”. So there is clearly an attempt to go the extra mile to justify further consolidation in an area of ​​digital consumer services that Google is already massively dominating – at a time when U.S. lawmakers are going in the opposite direction. So, um …

Civil society in Europe (and beyond) has been talking massively about the Google Fitbit takeover since it was announced, urging the bloc’s regulators to stop the tech giant from devouring Fitbit’s cache of health data unless or until the protection of the Human rights this can be guaranteed.

Today the Commission has circumvented these broader rights concerns.

At best, it thinks it kicked the can down the street for a decade or two at most. And by 2030 (or 2040) it is hoped that the rules that have just been proposed to restrict digital gatekeepers like Google will be able to keep future abuse at bay.

The EU’s often-stated preference is to regulate tech giants, not to break their empires – or, as it turns out, to stand in the way of further empire expansion.

Commenting on the release of Google Fitbit, Vestager said in a statement: “We can approve the proposed acquisition of Fitbit by Google as the commitments will ensure that the wearables market and the nascent digital health space remain open and competitive. The commitments determine how Google can use the collected data for advertising purposes, how to ensure interoperability between competing wearables and Android, and how users can continue to share health and fitness data if they so choose. “

Vestager was answering questions from a European Parliament committee last week, signaling the unstoppable impending release of Gitbit. The US and Europe are taking a different approach to dealing with technology giants that dominate the market. “There is no monopoly ban in Europe,” she told MPs. “You have a different legal basis in the USA. We’d say you’re more than welcome to be successful, but with success comes responsibility – which is why we have Article 102 [against abusing a dominant position]. ”

This is why the Commission has seen the need to propose a new regulation to strengthen enforcement of competition in digital markets – although it will most likely take years for the DMA to be adopted.

In the meantime, the EU regulators are letting Google expand its dominance of people’s private information by sacking Fitbit’s treasure trove of sensitive health data – for later full use.

As Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff warned last week, surveillance capitalism’s business ambitions definitely go well beyond mere targeted ads. The aim is to use data “to make predictions that become more lucrative as they get closer to certainty ”, as she put it – the warning society must intervene in the public interest to stop the“ epistemic coup ”of the tech giants.

Accurate predictions generated from health data could be very lucrative for Google (which has increased its focus on the health sector in recent years).

It remains to be seen whether this is net good or bad for humanity – which isn’t the kind of big gambling regulators to be comfortable with. So many will say that the commission is just fiddling around the edges and providing Big Tech a handy bypass for enforcing the competition.

Thank you to everyone who took part in this fight – a fair and sincere one, I thought.

A great personal defeat. And by and large, we’re still at zero mergers, which are banned for Big Tech worldwide (now we’re at 1,000 mergers and counting).

– Tommaso Valletti (@TomValletti) December 17, 2020

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