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‘Not On Our Watch’: A public campaign against Google’s jump into our health data

Monopolies, mergers and acquisitions, anti-trust laws. These may seem like tangential or irrelevant issues for privacy and digital rights organisations. But having run our first public petition opposing a big tech merger, we wanted to set out why we think this is an important frontier for people's rights across Europe and indeed across the world.

By Privacy International (guest author) · September 14, 2020

In June, Google notified the European Commission of its intention to acquire Fitbit, the health and fitness tracker company. Google’s stated mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” ‘Organize’ sounds so benign, just administrative, so tidy. But Google can only organise the world’s information by first aggressively getting its hands on the world’s information, whether we really want to give them that information or not. And nothing is more personal than our health data so this would be a game-changing acquisition. Because of how Google could potentially combine our health data with so much other data it already has about us, we were concerned that Google would use the merger to become an unassailable leader in the health and fitness monitoring market.

The merger triggered reactions among civil society organisations, and Privacy International (PI) was a signatory to a common statement sent to the European Commission, coordinated by BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation.

Getting the public to care

But can we get the public to care about a boring merger? That’s the €1.86bn question (that’s how much Google wants to pay for Fitbit). When big tech companies make strides forward in their capabilities and reach, often by buying up existing companies in markets that they don’t yet dominate, it affects everyone’s rights.

Mergers and acquisitions, undertaken with the kind of aggression and greed that we see amongst big tech companies, can mean they are the ‘last man standing’ in their markets. With less competition, the bloated big tech companies don’t have to compete, which means they can impose unfair conditions on users, and they can also afford to be complacent about our privacy.

Crushing or buying competitors also boosts ‘network effects’ – a simple example of a network effect is that you probably started using WhatsApp because well, everybody else was on WhatsApp, so you couldn’t really not be on WhatsApp. That particular network effect means you’re using yet another Facebook service, whether you like it or not.

Back to the Google/Fitbit merger, if you want to get away from Google’s tentacles, theoretically at least, you could try to be a digital ascetic and live a life without Google search, Google Maps and YouTube. And you’d have to give up your Android phone too (80% of the world’s smart phones use Google’s Android operating system). But bear in mind, if you do get rid of it to get one over on Google, it would probably just mean buying a phone from that other big tech behemoth instead. So in the real world, consumers have no choice but to go with the flow, and feed the tech beasts’ insatiable appetites. In doing so, we find ourselves unknowingly further entrenching the power of the big tech companies.

United we stand

So, we launched a public petition against the Google/Fitbit merger within a couple of days of it being announced to the European Commission. With the support of eight civil society organisations from around the world [Access Now, ARTICLE 19, Derechos Digitales, EDRi, Hellenic Association of Data Protection and Privacy, Homo Digitalis, Idec (Brazilian Institute of Consumer Defense) and Unwanted Witness], we coordinated a campaign to warn about the dangers of ‘Googbit’, a fictional dystopian smart watch. Googbit would link together your health data with a range of other Google products and services e.g. ‘You have been depressed for a month. Buy this book from the GoogStore because I think it will lift your mood’ etc.

Over 2,500 people signed the petition over a few short weeks, which we then sent on to Margrethe Vestager, the Executive Vice President of the European Commission for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age. We were heartened that Commissioner Vestager sent a letter to thank PI and the petitioners, noting that she appreciated the views the public expressed through our petition.

What’s next?

The Commission, having already decided to undertake a detailed phase 2 investigation of the merger, will now announce their final decision on 9th December. We’re confident that whatever the Commission rules, they will now be taking into account the concerns of the people who signed our petition. And while we hope that the Commission will make the right decision (and uphold consumer well-being over big tech profit), whatever they decide we have at least started to inform, educate and inspire the public about why boring tech mergers matter to their lives.

(Contribution by Harmit Kambo, Campaigns Director at Privacy International)

Read more:

– PI’s ‘Not On Our Watch’ campaign:

– Google wants to acquire Fitbit and we shouldn’t let it:

– A day in the life of a GoogBit user in 2025:

– PI’s intervention before the European Commission’s review of the Google/Fitbit merger: