Takeovers of smaller rivals by digital platforms, including their data sets, may pose a threat to consumers’ choice and privacy according to Rod Sims, chairman of the ACCC. 

“Few consumers are fully informed of, nor can they effectively control, how their data is going to be used and shared,” Sims said during the Consumer Policy Research Conference in Melbourne today.

“There are further concerns when the service they sign up to is taken over by another business.”

He referenced Google’s recent acquisition of Fitbit, which will see the tech giant gain access the health data of  millions of Fitbit users.

“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,” he said. 

The ACCC is currently preparing a legal case against Google over its collection of consumers data, which the consumer regulator alleges was misleading.

Rick Osterloh, SVP devices and services at Google said at the time of the Fitbit acquisition, “Similar to our other products, with wearables, we will be transparent about the data we collect and why. We will never sell personal information to anyone. Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads. And we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move, or delete their data.”

Big tech take backs

At the time of Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick, the company reportedly denied that the data it collects through its system for serving ads would be combined with Google’s search data.  

Eight years later, Google updated its privacy policy and removed a commitment not to combine Doubleclick data with personally identifiable data held by Google.

When Facebook acquired WhatsApp, Facebook claimed it was unable to establish reliable matching between Facebook users and WhatsApp users’ accounts. 

Two years later, WhatsApp updated its terms of service and privacy policy, indicating it could link WhatsApp users’ phone numbers with Facebook users’ identities.

Sims explained, “Given the history of digital platforms making statements as to what they intend to do with data and what they actually do down the track, it is a stretch to believe any commitment Google makes in relation Fitbit users’ data will still be in place five years from now.

“Clearly, personal health data is an increasingly valuable commodity so it is important when consumers sign up to a particular health platform their original privacy choices are respected and their personal data is protected even if that company is sold.”

Research from the ACCC Digital Platforms Inquiry showed around 80 per cent of users considered digital platforms tracking their online behaviour to create profiles, and also the sharing their personal information with an unknown third party, is a misuse of their information.

Facebook’s recent announcement of its planned offering of a cryptocurrency Libra is also a potential cause for concern, Sims said. His concerns put the ACCC in step with privacy regulators around the world

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

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

“During our DPI we found a lack of consumer protection and effective deterrence of poor data practises have undermined consumer’s ability to choose products.

“Vague, long and complex data policies contribute to this substantial disconnect between how consumers think their data should be treated and how it is actually treated. 

“Transparency and inadequate disclosure issues involving digital platforms and consumer data were a major focus of our Inquiry, and remain one of the ACCC’s top priorities.”

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