Wednesday, 11 November 2020 10:27

Top Monash economists urge EC, ACCC to reject Google-Fitbit deal Featured

Top Monash economists urge EC, ACCC to reject Google-Fitbit deal Courtesy Fitbit

Researchers from the Monash Business School have made a presentation to the European Commission and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, saying that Google should not be allowed to acquire US-based fitness company Fitbit.

The acquisition was announced in November last year, with Google saying it would pay US$2.1 billion (A$2.88 billion) for the San Francisco-based company.

This would give Google access to the health data of 28 million people from across the globe. The ACCC has raised concerns about the deal twice this year.

Top economists from Monash said the proposed acquisition raised a number of concerns.

Professor Chongwoo Choe, director of the Centre for Global Business, and Associate Professor Zhijun Chen, a co-ordinator for CGB’s Digital Economy Research Network, joined with a number of the world’s top competition economists to prepare an amicus brief to the European Competition Authority in the hope they could raise the alarm on behalf of unsuspecting global consumers.

“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."

Associate Professor Chen said Google’s bid for Fitbit was consistent with its strategy to expand into healthcare, life sciences and insurance.

“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 healthcare,” he said.

In a paper titled Data-driven mergers and personalisation, the researchers argued that, on one hand, access to richer datasets could enable firms to tailor products and service offerings in a more personalised way.

But the downside was that enhanced personalisation and better targeting strategies could increase the search behemoth's capacity to engage in price discrimination and consumer exploitation.

The paper was included as key evidence in a submission to the European Commission and was presented to the ACCC team reviewing the Google-Fitbit case.

“We also need to worry about incentives to pre-empt competition that could threaten Google’s data collection dominance,” Professor Choe said.

“As the consensus is now firmly that preventing bad mergers is a key tool for competition policy vis-à-vis acquisitive digital platforms, the European Commission and other authorities should be very sceptical of this deal, and realistic about their limited ability to design, impose and monitor appropriate remedies.”

Associate Professor Chen said Google’s ambition was to protect its unique data empire, integrate functionalities, and monetise information through its expanding digital arms.

He said the evidence for this was obvious through the Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) with a number of its popular free services – Gmail, Calendar, Maps, Chrome and News.

Revenue from these platforms wasn’t directly sourced from the sale of advertisements, but through the collection of consumer demographic, interest and location data to better target advertisement placement.

“The Fitbit merger provides the chance for the European Commission and the ACCC to remain a frontrunner in the enforcement and guidance of merger policy in the digital era,” Associate Professor Chen said.

Professor Choe said the proposed acquisition was not just about a gadget being brought into Google’s ecosystem, but one that involved highly sensitive data that was likely to harm 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.”

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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