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Privacy, consumer groups urge FTC to block Google-Fitbit deal, citing privacy and competition concerns

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A coalition of privacy, consumer and social justice groups has asked the United States government to block Google’s acquisition of Fitbit, citing antitrust and privacy concerns. In a letter to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on November 13, the groups wrote that Fitbit would help Google to increase its dominance over internet searches, and give it another way to gather health information. MediaNama has reached out to Google for comment.

The groups said that the acquisition should not be permitted because “Google already holds a dominant position in the digital marketplace, health data is critical to the future of that marketplace, and the data protection concerns stemming from the acquisition will have far-reaching consequences including a dramatic erosion of consumer privacy.” Watchdog groups such as Public Citizen, Centre for Digital Democracy, and Consumer Federation of America, were among the nine organisations that wrote to the FTC. The groups raised the following concerns:

Google’s previous acquisitions: Google’s 2008 acquisition of Doubleclick also deserves close scrutiny, because Google had failed to uphold representations that it had made to the Commission regarding the personal data gathered by DoubleClick. They further noted that Google has acquired more than 200 firms, many of which implicate personal privacy, and those deals should also be re-examined.

  • Dissemination of health care data: Google should not gain control of Fitbit’s sensitive and individualised health data, which can be integrated with data from its current services to deepen its own monopoly.  Google has assured transparency about health data collection, and said that privacy and security are paramount. Fitbit had also ensured that its health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads.
  • FDA’s stamp for Fitbit: The letter noted that a pending Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stamp of approval for Fitbit would give Google even more influence in healthcare data and technology. Fitbit is already on the track of getting clearance as one of the nine companies chosen to pilot the FDA’s Software Precertification (Pre-Cert) Program, and its involvement with Google would allow the company to have the influence over healthcare data.
  • Big tech firms had stopped acquisitions previously: Microsoft and IBM had stopped its acquisition activity during their historic anti-trust probe. This indicates ” we are now in an era of unprecedented disregard for legal authority”, the letter noted.
  • Anti-competitive harm of acquisition: The FTC erred while assessing the Facebook/Instagram deal and Amazon/Whole Foods deal, by defining the relevant markets as photo-sharing applications and groceries respectively. The FTC should not make the same mistake by ignoring the consolidation this acquisition would cause within the health data market place, the letter noted.
  • Personal data collection: Google had acquired consumer data, regardless of its source, having recently been fined $170M for collecting children’s personal data through its subsidiary YouTube, the groups noted.

Google continued with its acquisition despite facing antitrust investigation: Anti-trust lawmakers

The chair of the US’s antitrust subcommittee in the Justice Department noted that Google had continued with its acquisitions despite facing antitrust investigations, per Reuters report. The chair was pointing towards Google’s acquisition of Looker and Fitbit. The acquisition of Looker, a big data analytics company, was approved last week, Reuters said. It is worth noting that politicians and regulators had also criticised Google and other tech companies for how they use customer data to gain profits. The US Justice Department and the committee is looking into Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple, while the FTC is investigating Facebook and Amazon, to understand how personalised advertising transactions work, the report said.

Google’s Project Nightingale collected millions of Americans’ health records

The letter to FTC also talked about Google’s Project Nightingale, under which Google has secretly gathered the health data of millions of Americans on behalf of the United States’ second-largest healthcare provider, Ascension. It involves the collection of health data such as lab results, diagnoses, hospitalisation records and other records including patient names and dates of birth, from Ascension’s hospitals without informing patients of such collection. Ascension is a Catholic non-profit that operates 150 hospitals in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

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What are Google and Ascension working on? They are together testing software that will allow healthcare providers to search a patient’s electronic health record by “specific data categories and create graphs of the information, like blood test results over time”, The New York Times had reported. This includes Ascension transferring patient records to Google’s servers, with the intention of giving medical professionals better access to patient data, improve care and get insights on health data to improve treatment, the report had said.

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