Eight months ago, we had seen it coming and commented on the $2.1 billion deal through which Google gobbled up fitness tracker firm Fitbit. British mathematician and data science honcho Clive Humby’s prediction that data was the new oil was coming true and pretty much every big tech company was going after health data as if there is no tomorrow.
Now, close your eyes for a moment and imagine how those who already have their hands on such data would respond to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic? It is manna from heaven as the world seeks to track the disease and once an antidote surfaces, these companies will be leading the way in pushing digital sales of medical essentials through suggestive gimmicks that would flood the user’s smartphone screens.
Well, looks like antitrust regulators have also imagined just the same or have been woken up by the shrill protests of consumer advocacy groups. The legal eagles are increasing their scrutiny of Google’s planned acquisition of Fitbit. The deal was to be completed some time in 2020, but now it looks as though there are some storm clouds over it.
The European Union has sent a 60-page questionnaire to Google as well as Fitbit’s rivals asking them to assess how the deal would affect digital healthcare in general and whether it tantamount to anti-competition, especially for those healthcare apps that Google has hosted on its own Play Store and is accessed by billions of Android users.
Of course, the bigger question is how Google could access personal data of users including their daily activity trackers, heart rate and other parameters to profile them so that in future it could be used to deliver targeted search as part of the company’s main revenue stream – the search and advertising business.
The EU regulators are expecting Google and the others to respond by July 20 based on which a final decision could be made. As it stands, this trading bloc can approve the deal or ask for concessions from Google or even open a prolonged investigation to study the issue in greater detail, given the increasing data privacy concerns.
Of course, it isn’t just the European Union that appears to be worried over the growing clout of service companies such as Google and Facebook, given their vast reach and ability to influence users through targeted content and advertising. Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission too had recently announced its own concerns.
The commission had stated in no uncertain terms that the acquisition of Fitbit by Google will end up creating a comprehensive set of user data that would raise barriers to potential rivals and result in a monopolistic behavior. Imagine how a total monopoly could strangle makers of healthcare equipment by squeezing margins and creating an unholy nexus whereby those who pay Google more will sell more.
In fact, consumer advocacy groups have firmly set the ball in global regulators’ court by suggesting that the Google-Fitbit deal is a test case for their efficacy. However, Google has made some concessions to allay fears claiming that Fitbit data would not be used by Google to serve up ads.
Though this line of reasoning could deter antitrust regulators from blocking the deal, there could still be a demand for some concessions from these agencies. And once, Google does agree to such concessions, it would have to provide it on a global scale as other regulators would immediately jump in.