Fitbit Alta

Google is essentially free to go ahead with its acquisition of smart watch company Fitbit.

After completing an antitrust investigation that started in August, the European Union’s antitrust commission decided that the acquisition can go ahead, so long as certain “commitments” are made by Google to complete the deal. The EU wants to ensure that the market for smart wearables, like Fitbit, stays competitive, and that user data is handled responsibly.

“The commitments will determine how Google can use the data collected for ad purposes, how interoperability between competing wearables and Android will be safeguarded and how users can continue to share health and fitness data, if they choose to,” Margrethe Vestager, executive vice president of the antitrust authority, said.

As for the wearables market in Europe, the commission found that actually, there is competition to be found. Apple, Garmin and Samsung all have their own products and “Fitbit has a limited market share in Europe.”

“The proposed transaction leads to very limited horizontal overlaps between the activities of Google and Fitbit,” the commission added in its assessment of the deal.

When it comes to advertising, around which the commission raised alarms due to Google’s possible use of highly personal data from Fitbits in order to sell even more targeted ads, there will now be certain barriers put in place to prevent any such use.

Under the terms of the approval, Google will not be allowed to use “health and wellness data collected from wrist-worn wearable devices and other Fitbit devices,” including GPS and manually inserted data, for any ads. Google will also be required to keep all Fitbit data separate from the rest of the company.

“The data will be stored in a ‘data silo’ which will be separate from any other Google data that is used for advertising,” the commission said.

As of now, these commitments will be enforced for at least the next 10 years, the commission said, but they could be extended for an additional decade could the EU decide it’s necessary. A “trustee” for the EU will be appointed to monitor Google’s adherence to the new rules.

A Google spokesperson seemed to signal that the required commitments are accepted and already being implemented.

“We understand that regulators wanted to look closely at this transaction, and we have worked constructively with them to resolve their concerns, including the set of legally binding commitments the European Commission accepted today,” the spokesperson said. “These build on assurances we have made since the beginning that we are committed to protecting Fitbit users’ privacy and will continue to invest
in and support manufacturers and developers. We continue to work with regulators around the world to answer their questions about the acquisition.” 

The investigation of the Fitbit acquisition is the commission’s ninth investigation into Google in the past decade. Three have resulted in fines, with a record fine coming in 2017 of 2.4 billion euros. Most investigations have centered around Google’s dominance as an Internet search platform and, within that, its large influence over online advertising.

Europe has some of the strictest laws and regulations on consumer data, how it can be collected, used and stored by companies, and has taken an aggressive stance in regulating the biggest and most popular tech operators, including Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter.

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