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EU Commission must block Google's acquisition of Fitbit, says data protection NGO

The Fitbit Charge 3 fitness trackers with sport bands are displayed in New York in August 2018.
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A data protection NGO is calling on the European Commission to block Google's planned acquisition of Fitbit, arguing the technology giant doesn't have a "clean record" with the handling of sensitive personal information.

Google formally notified the Commission of its plan to acquire Fitbit, a wearable technology company in the health and fitness sector, on Monday. The deal is valued at approximately $2.1 billion (€1.8 billion).

European regulators have until July 20 to decide whether the merger can go ahead.

Privacy International, a UK-based charity promotion privacy rights, has warned however that the deal will enable Google "to capture a massive trove of sensitive health data that will entrench its digital dominance".

"Privacy International is calling on EU regulators to block the merger," it said in a statement.

"If the EU approves the deal, then it will be giving a green light to our most intimate data being used for the profit of a tech giant which, in 2018 only, generated more than $80 billion (€71 billion) in revenue from delivering targeted advertisements to users," it added.

The charity flagged that Fitbit collects health information — the California-based company produces devices and apps that track health data including number of steps, heart rate, weight, and quality sleep — and that these data are afforded a very high level of protection under EU laws.

It argued that "Google doesn't have a clean record" on handling data, citing a €50 million fine it received from the French data protection regulator for violating data protection law in 2018 among others.

" If Google obtains access to this data, then this adds to a vicious cycle. More sensitive data for Google means more opportunities for unique and intrusive profiling, which means a lot more advertisers seeking to benefit from these profiles, and, hence, a lot more profit - not to mention further business opportunities and reach for Google," it went on.

A Google spokesperson rejected the criticism, telling Euronews that the submission to the European Commission includes " detailed information on our reasons for this acquisition - to build helpful wearable devices."

"Throughout this process we have been clear about our commitment not to use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads and our responsibility to provide people with choice and control."

Privacy International is not the only organisation which has raised concerns about the merger.

BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, said in a statement in May that "if Google acquires consumers' data generated by the use of Fitbit wearables, including now COVID-19 related data, it would be able to use that data for its own benefit and could undermine the ability of other companies to bring new products to consumers."

"The proposed merger therefore has the potential to touch not only digital markets but also the vital part of all European citizen's lives, their health and well-being," it added.

US Congressman David Cicilline, who also chairs the antitrust subcommittee, called for "an immediate and thorough investigation" into the merger when it was first announced in November.

"Google's dominance is currently under investigation by Congress, the Justice Department, and 50 US states and territories. By attempting this deal at this moment, Google is signalling that it will continue to flex and expand ts power in spite of this immense scrutiny", he said.