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EU’s antitrust probe of Google-Fitbit gets more time

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Image Credits: Fitbit

European antitrust regulators now have until almost the end of the year to take a decision on whether to green light Google’s planned acquisition of Fitbit.

The tech giant announced its intention to buy the fitness tracking wearable maker in November 2019, saying it would shell out $2.1 billion in cash to make off with Fitbit and the health data it holds on some 28 million-plus users.

EU regulators were quick to sound the alarm about letting the tech giant go shopping for such a major cache of sensitive personal data, with the European Data Protection Board warned in February that the proposed purchase poses a huge risk to privacy.

There is also a parallel concern that Fitbit’s fitness data could further consolidate Google’s regional dominance in the ad market. And last month EU competition regulators announced a full antitrust probe — saying then they would take a decision within 90 working days. That deadline has now been extended by a further two weeks.

A Commission spokeswoman confirmed the earlier provisional December 9 deadline has been pushed on “in agreement with the parties” — citing Article 10(3) of the EU’s Merger Regulation.

“The provisional legal deadline for a final decision in this case is now December 23, 2020,” she added.

The Commission has not offered any detail on the reason for allocating more time to take a decision.

When EU regulators announced the in-depth probe, the Commission said it was concerned data gathered by Fitbit could lead to a distortion of competition if Google was allowed to assimilate the wearable maker and “further entrench” its dominance in online ad markets.

Other concerns include the impact on the nascent digital healthcare sector, and whether Google might be incentivised to degrade the interoperability of rival wearables with its Android OS once it has its own hardware skin in the game.

The tech giant, meanwhile, has offered assurances around the deal in an attempt to get it cleared — claiming ahead of the Commission’s probe announcement it would not use Fitbit health data for ad targeting, and suggesting that it would create a “data silo” for Fitbit data to keep it separate from other data holdings.

However, regulators have expressed scepticism — with the Commission writing last month that the “data silo commitment proposed by Google is insufficient to clearly dismiss the serious doubts identified at this stage as to the effects of the transaction”.

It remains to be seen what the bloc’s competition regulators conclude after taking a longer and harder look at the deal — and it’s worth noting they are simultaneously consulting on whether to give themselves new powers to be able to intervene faster to regulate digital markets — but Google’s hopes of friction-free regulatory clearance and being able to hit the ground running in 2020 with Fitbit’s data in its pocket have certainly not come to pass. 

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