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Warning over Google’s $2.9bn deal

Google’s planned $2.9 billion acquisition of health tracking company Fitbit should be blocked, according to academics who fear the search and advertising giant will get their hands on millions of people’s health data.Antitrust regulators including the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the European Commission are currently weighing up whether to approve the deal.Director of…

Google’s planned $2.9 billion acquisition of health tracking company Fitbit should be blocked, according to academics who fear the search and advertising giant will get their hands on millions of people’s health data.

Antitrust regulators including the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the European Commission are currently weighing up whether to approve the deal.

Director of the Centre for Global Business at Monash University Business School Professor Chongwoo Choe has advised blocking the deal, and has warned it would give Google ownership of roughly 28 million people’s health data.

“Sensitive health data held by Fitbit can be added to users’ personal profile Google aggregates from its other services, such as emails, maps and online searches,” Professor Choe said.

“While Google says it would not use Fitbit data for advertising purposes, this doesn’t rule out Google’s use of this data in other markets, such as health care.”

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“By connecting Fitbit data with user data from Google’s Cloud Healthcare API, Google can build a more comprehensive patient profile and offer more personalised health care,” Monash Business School associate professor Zhijun Chen said.

He said it was “consistent” with Google’s strategy to move into health care, life sciences and insurance.

While Google’s ownership of the data would enable it to provide more personal and targeted experiences for consumers, the Monash academics argue it can also make it easier for the firm to engage in price discrimination and consumer exploitation.

Their paper on the that topic: Data-Driven Mergers and Personalisation , has been presented to both Commissions scrutinising the deal.

Professor Choe stressed it was also important to consider whether Google was making the deal to prevent future competition.

He said authorities “should be very sceptical of this deal, and realistic about their limited ability to design, impose and monitor appropriate remedies”.

Dr Chen said Google’s past record showed it would seek to protect its unique data empire, while also providing new capabilities for its devices and services as well as monetising collected information through its expanding digital arms.

Google’s main hardware competitor Apple has been focusing on health and fitness recently, marketing the Apple Watch on its health tracking capabilities and announcing a new service that will stream workout routines.

The Fitbit deal, if it is approved, would provide Google a shortcut to competing with Apple in the health and fitness market.

But Professor Choe warned Google’s acquisition of Fitbit is not just about bringing a new gadget into Google’s ecosystem: It also involves highly sensitive data that could impact on consumers in health insurance, medical services and even labour markets.

“All too often, academics and policymakers look back and lament a failure to intervene more decisively and bemoan their hopeful reliance on remedies that just don’t work,” Professor Choe said.

“Blocking the merger doesn’t solve all problems related to health data, but it avoids amplifying already existing problems,” he added.

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