Germany’s competition regulator, the Bundeskartellamt, has obtained a set of commitments from Google to stop combining certain data from across different platforms without consent. The commitments conclude a long-running dispute under German antitrust law.
Google’s significant market share in several sectors allegedly gives the tech giant an unfair advantage, as the company can glean unique insights into consumers’ behaviour based on data points collected across many unrelated contexts.
This article provides an overview of the Bundeskartellemant’s findings and Google’s commitment to offering users greater choices around the use of their data.
Terms and Conditions
The Bundeskartellamt’s decision originates from a 2021 investigation into Alphabet, Google’s parent company, under the German Competition Act.
The regulator found that when creating a Google account and accepting Google’s terms of service, users are required to agree with “extensive data processing” involving data from across different Google services.
- Providing its services
- Maintaining and improving its services
- Developing new services
- Personalizing content and ads
- Measuring performance
- Communicating with users
- Protecting Google, its users and the public
The policy also explains Google’s data-combining practices to users:
“We may combine the information we collect among our services and across your devices for the purposes described above. For example, if you watch videos of guitar players on YouTube, you might see an ad for guitar lessons on a site that uses our ad products. Depending on your account settings, your activity on other sites and apps may be associated with your personal information in order to improve Google’s services and the ads delivered by Google.”
Google can combine data about individuals whether or not they are signed into a Google account. The company uses several identifiers to uniquely identify users in different contexts, including the Google account ID, cookies, and device information such as the user’s IP address.
Google’s Privacy Controls
Google offers users some control over how their data is used, but some are provided on an “opt-out” basis.
On account creation, Google users can opt to “manually” personalize their accounts, or they can choose “express” personalization and let Google pick their settings.
Users selecting “manual personalization” will see further choices, including options to stop Google storing their “Web & App Activity” and to receive either “personalized” and “generic” (contextual) ads.
Despite these customizations, the Bundeskartellamt found that:
- Access to Google’s services is, to some extent, conditional on allowing Google to combine data from across its platforms.
- Users are not offered enough choices regarding how Google uses their data.
- Google could not justify data-combining activities on the basis of users’ freedom of information or expression.
The combined effect of these practices allegedly gave Google an unfair advantage over its smaller competitors.