Google promises Germany to creep on users less after market power probe

Regulation complements EU's Digital Markets Act to cover more services

Google has committed to being a little less creepy with user data in response to proceedings from the German Federal Cartel Office (Bundeskartellamt).

The commitments are all about how Google processes user data and gives those users more control over what the ad giant is doing with their information.

It comes after German competition law was tweaked in 2021 to give regulators sharper teeth when it comes to reining in large digital companies and, according to the regulator, "is a testament to the close cooperation between the Bundeskartellamt and the European Commission on the way to achieving more competition and fair markets in the digital sector."

German sabres began to rattle concerning the processing of data by Google in January 2023.

Andreas Mundt, President of the Bundeskartellamt, said: "Data are key for many business models used by large digital companies. The market power of large digital companies is based on the collection, processing and combination of data. Google's competitors do not have these data and are thus faced with serious competitive disadvantages.

"In the future users of Google services will have a much better choice as to what happens to their data, how Google can use them and whether their data may be used across services. This not only protects the users' right to determine the use of their data, but also curbs Google's data-driven market power."

Free and informed consent will be required from the user before data can be shared between services – for example, combining personal data from one Google service with personal data from another, which could be a Google service or a third party.

Mundt thundered: "We have made sure that Google will provide a separate choice option in the future."

Readers would be forgiven for getting a vague feeling of déjà vu concerning the commitments since it all sounds very much like the EU's Digital Markets Act (DMA) in which Google's parent company, Alphabet, was designated a gatekeeper alongside Apple, Amazon, ByteDance, Meta, and Microsoft. The Bundeskartellamt has acknowledged this; therefore, the commitments do not cover services already listed by the European Commission.

Mundt said the DMA and the German law (Section 19a of the German Competition Act) complemented each other, but added: "The platform regulation pursuant to the Digital Markets Act by far does not cover all services offered by the companies which have been designated as gatekeepers, and it does not cover all competition issues either.

"For this reason it remains important to resolutely apply competition rules in parallel to the enforcement of the DMA."

While the DMA went for the big-name services such as Search, Maps, and YouTube, the commitments cover others including News, Android Auto, and Workspace.

The commitments stop Google from using its data processing terms to combine or cross-use data from covered services and require that users must ask for consent – free and unambiguous consent that won't cripple services if a user declines.

Users must also be able to withdraw their consent to cross-service processing easily.

The Bundeskartellamt expects an implementation plan from Google within three months and expects the commitments to be fulfilled for Assistant and Contacts by March 6, 2024. The commitments for the other services must be filled by September 30, 2024.

The Bundeskartellamt reckons that by working with the EU in parallel to the DMA, implementation should not be a major pain for Google.

The Register contacted Google to get its take, and will update this piece should the company respond. While these commitments concern the German marketplace, it is not difficult to imagine them being adopted elsewhere. Google has yet to comment on its intentions for other regions. ®

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