Google’s $2.1 billion Fitbit bid a threat to consumers, ACCC chair Rod Sims warns


ACCC chair Rod Sims. Source: ACCC.

Google’s $2.1 billion acquisition of healthtech company Fitbit has drawn concern from ACCC chair Rod Sims, who has warned digital takeovers could pose a threat to consumer choice and privacy.

Speaking at a Consumer Policy Research Centre (CPRC) conference, Sims said the consumer watchdog is worried consumers are unable to control how their data is used and shared by companies undertaking merger and acquisition activity.

“Few consumers are fully informed of, nor can they effectively control, how their data is going to be used and shared. There are further concerns when the service they sign up to is taken over by another business,” Sims said in comments circulated Tuesday.

The comments come as experts warn companies need to rethink the way they approach consumer data to avoid getting in hot water with regulators, particularly in relation to how information is handled between multiple companies in the event of a company sale or shutdown.

Sims specifically addressed both Google and Facebook in the speech — two companies which were the focus of a recent enquiry into digital platforms undertaken by the ACCC.

Google’s plan to purchase Fitbit has raised privacy concerns around the world, with consumers and regulators expressing worry personal information they provided Fitbit could find its way into the hands of a company that makes money by monetising consumer data.

“The change in data collection policies, when a company like Fitbit transfers its data to Google, creates a very uncertain world for consumers who shared very personal information about their health to Fitbit under a certain set of privacy terms,” Sims said.

Google has a history here. Sims noted Google’s prior acquisition of DoubleClick, where the company denied its consumer data would be combined with Google’s search data, only for Google to update its privacy policy eight years later to remove the commitment.

“It is a stretch to believe any commitment Google makes in relation to Fitbit users’ data will still be in place five years from now,” Sims said.

Sims took a similarly dull view towards Facebook’s cryptocurrency play, Libra.

“Here we have an organisation, whose lifeblood is to monetise data, getting into the financial services industry,” Sims said.

“A lack of clear information about how their data will be handled reduces consumers’ ability to make informed choices based on that data.”

“We’re starting to wake up”

The speech underlines the incredulous tone Australia’s consumer watchdog is taking to the advent of multinational digital platforms at a time when regulators are trying to work out how to protect consumer privacy in a world where people have become the product.

Damien Manuel, director of Deakin University’s Centre for Cyber Security Research and Innovation (CSRI), says entrepreneurs need to be thinking about what happens to consumer data if they sell, exit or shut down their companies.

“We’re starting to wake up and realise this stuff [consumer data] has real monetary value,” Manuel tells SmartCompany.

Manuel says the ACCC is looking to get on the front foot with consumer welfare issues in this space and businesses need to ensure the right procedures are in place to ensure data isn’t used for purposes consumers haven’t consented to.

“They [companies] now need to think about information and data through a very different lens,” Manuel says.

“When you collect data you typically don’t think about it as an asset, but information may be worth more than your physical assets.”

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